PORTLAND — Nearly 7,000 students across Maine’s largest school district began the new school year Thursday under a new superintendent.

Principal Dawn Carrigan was a calm presence Thursday morning amid the back-to-school buzz at Longfellow Elementary School on Stevens Avenue. But she confided that, inside, she was raring to go.

“You don’t sleep the night before” the first day, she said. “It’s exciting. There’s so much great energy. What happens on the first day really sets the tone.”

New Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk stopped in at several schools Thursday afternoon to welcome the staff and students back to class.

At King Middle School, he arrived as Principal Michael McCarthy spoke before an assembly of sixth-graders.

Invited up on stage, Caulk told the students that this favorite school year was sixth grade, because “that’s when I was turned on to learning.”

His teacher inspired him to become an educator and even today, he said, he carries his sixth-grade report card in his wallet.

“I’ll be back to see your report card,” Caulk said, holding up the folded-up report card, “and I will show you mine.”

Caulk also visited Hall Elementary School and Ocean Avenue Elementary School. At each school, he greeted students and teachers with a quick smile and contagious enthusiasm.

Caulk, 40, came to Portland from Philadelphia, where he was an assistant superintendent in charge of 36 of the 249 schools in the nation’s eighth-largest school system. He replaced James Morse, who was superintendent for three years.

Elsewhere in Portland, the first day of school created excitement.

At East End Community School on Munjoy Hill, parents began lining up with their children well before 8 a.m., and teachers greeted children getting off school buses with handshakes, high-fives and fist bumps.

Principal Marcia Gendron said the upcoming school year will put iPads in the hands of kids in grades 3-5, and feature an expanded environmental curriculum and a more integrated math, science and technology program.

Gendron said teachers have been busy all summer with education programs within the school and in the community. “In some ways the school year never ended,” she said.

Outside, Clara Coleman and Robbie George, who moved here from Colorado in July, dropped off their 7-year-old son, Bode, and had their 5-year-old son, Hayden, assessed for kindergarten.

Bode said he wasn’t nervous, and his confidence appeared to rub off on his parents.

“We’ve heard great things about the public schools on the peninsula,” said Coleman, who was impressed with the school’s garden.

“I like the fact that it’s a LEED-certified school,” said George, noting the school’s energy-efficient certification.

At Longfellow, Ann Stepp had a good reason — three, actually — for looking forward to the first day of school.

“It’s going to be a great year,” said Stepp, who has taught string instruments in all of Portland’s elementary schools for 28 years. “My daughter is getting married in December, I’m going to Paris on April vacation, and I’m retiring at June.”

Caulk said the longevity of Portland’s teaching staff helps set it apart from other urban school districts. On Thursday, he met Denise Sucher, a teacher at Ocean Avenue Elementary School who has been in the profession for 40 years and said she has always looked forward to coming to work.

He also met Rita Rubin-Long at the Hall school. She has been with the district for more than 25 years, helping to establish the Many Rivers program.

“What’s wonderful about Portland is our teachers stay with us,” he said. “It’s incumbent on us to invest in our teachers, because they invest in us.”

For others, the start of the school year was a chance to break away.

Anya Criden-Clark eagerly finished all of twin sister Eva’s sentences outside the school as they locked up their bicycles at the rack. The trait marked Anya as the big sister, which she confirmed.

“By one minute!” she said.

Their father, Brian Clark, said the two have had only one class together and their schedules showed that would continue in fourth grade. “They’re ready for some time apart,” he said.

For some parents, back-to-school was a time to catch up. Biljana Nedeljkovic and Leeann McLaughlin, parents of second-graders, compared notes on the summer as their children headed inside.

Nedeljkovic confided that she wasn’t entirely happy that her son, Costa, was so eager to get back into the classroom.

“He missed his teachers so much,” she said. “What about me?”

— Staff Writer Ed Murphy contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]