It was the first day of school, but there were no bells ringing, lockers slamming or harried students searching for classes in Lawrence's public high schools Wednesday.
Instead, sophomores facing the big schools for the first time played games and took time to meet one another. Officials said they hoped the relaxed start ultimately would help students succeed at school.
"We want them to understand that high school can be fun, that it's going to be good to be connected with the school," said Cindy Trarbach, a Free State High social worker who led some of the festivities at the school.
About 5,900 Lawrence public school students returned for the new school year Wednesday. More will return today. Friday is the first day of the regular schedule. Bishop Seabury Academy also started Wednesday.
The high schools revamped their first-day routine for sophomores as part of a new plan aimed at helping all high school students do well.
The plan, called "Whatever It Takes," helps replace programs with the recent closure of Lawrence Alternative High School and responds to the rising expectations of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Each school has a unique plan, which includes new schedules, firm tardy and attendance policies, reward systems and other supports.
One piece is the LINK mentoring program, which couples sophomores with upperclassmen. LINK mentors led the festivities Wednesday.
At Lawrence High, the sophomores gathered in the gym, where they played games and whooped and hollered.
Janae Colter, an incoming student, was in the crowd. She wasn't nervous, she said. Several cousins attend the school and her brother recently graduated.
"I think it's going to go by fast," she said of her sophomore year. "I think it's going to be good."
But for others, the school was intimidating.
"It's a really big school, and I've never been here before," said Caitlin Carbaugh, a sophomore. "I think I'm going to get lost in the first couple minutes."
The schools team sophomores with upperclassmen to ease the concerns.
"We hear a lot of anxiety from incoming students about seniors picking on sophomores," Trarbach said. "We wanted to dispel that myth."
The students broke into groups and played simple games to get to know one another.
Colter said the program would help, but :
"It's kind of boring in a way," she said.
Shawna Randall, a senior and LINK leader, said the program made the first day better than it used to be when students listened to teachers and staff.
"Some of the kids think it's kind of stupid, but it's better than just sitting there," she said.
The point was to get students involved from the start. In the past, most of what the students did was sit and listen, Trarbach said.
"Within the first two minutes of walking in the door, they're involved," she said. "Part of it was dumb, and that's OK. Sometimes we can do just silly, dumb things at the school."
Keeping the tone of the first day light made it easier to send the message to students that they need to stay in school and be involved, Trarbach said.
"We're all more receptive, I think, when it's a little entertaining, a little fun," she said. "You couldn't just sit back and not be involved today. You could not tune out. We need them here, and we need them invested in their own education."