On the first day of the academic year, Fayette County Public Schools' new superintendent, Manny Caulk, rode a school bus to Mary Todd Elementary with students who, he said with a smile, "told me everything."
Later Wednesday, Caulk talked about academic proficiency over lunch with teenagers at Lafayette High School, telling them "I'm raising the bar."
Caulk met with administrators and walked the halls of several schools, including William Wells Brown Elementary, Bryan Station High ,the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, and Tates Creek Middle.
"We know that there's no other experience quite like the first day and we want to make it very special for all 41,000 of our students," Caulk said in an interview.
Students at another school, Julius Marks Elementary, got a visit from Miss Kentucky Clark Davis.
District spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said that as of 6 p.m., the first day appeared to have gone smoothly.
The one exception was a minor accident involving a school bus headed to Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in the morning. A car pulled out in front of the bus, she said. Seven students were on the bus but there were no injuries, Deffendall said.
Caulk's first visits of the day were to Mary Todd, William Wells Brown and Bryan Station High — schools where student achievement and poverty have been problematic.
For the 2013-14 school year, William Wells Brown was the lowest-scoring elementary school in the state's accountability system. It subsequently has received help from groups including United Way of the Bluegrass and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Third-grade teacher Eric Miracle said he and Caulk found common ground because both are new to Fayette County schools. Caulk visited Miracle's class while they were reading a book about first-day jitters.
"It was great to see him interact with the students. It was great to see how comfortable he made them feel," Miracle said. "It was a great experience for them to see leadership care about them."
At Bryan Station High School, senior Yahaira Jasmine Gonzalez said she had never met a superintendent before.
"He's very confident," she said of Caulk.
Bryan Station High is the only school in the district the state labels as persistently low-achieving. In one of Caulk's first actions as superintendent, a job he started Aug. 3, he filled leadership positions at Bryan Station, which state education officials have said has not gotten enough support from the district.
In Fayette County's low-performing schools, Caulk said, "we want to do the work more aggressively."
At Mary Todd, 90 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, an indication of poverty. Mary Todd, which is labeled in the state accountability system as "needs improvement/progressing," is trying a new approach called project-based learning.
Caulk, the first permanent black superintendent in Fayette County, said his background gave him perspective on the challenges he faces in closing the achievement gap between poor, minority and disabled students and others in the district.
Caulk, 43, said he grew up in public housing in Wilmington, Del., raised by a single mother. He recently told his story to UDaily, the news service of the University of Delaware, his alma mater:
"My friends' and my primary purpose for going to school was to socialize," he said. "We carried few school supplies and received very little guidance at home on the importance of education."
In sixth grade, he said, a teacher named Robert Glines changed his life, telling Caulk: "Through education, anything is possible."
As the school year begins, Caulk's plan to close the achievement gap is a work in progress.
As a high school principal in Newark, Del., he initiated a rigorous international curriculum for academically advanced students.
As an assistant superintendent in East Baton Rouge Parish in Louisiana, he said, he implemented an improvement plan for a high school that became the only school in the district to be removed from the state's takeover list.
As superintendent of the Portland, Maine, school district, the state's largest, he introduced a Spanish immersion program, an online course for elective and credit recovery, and a program to prepare incoming ninth-grade students for high school.
In one program he helped create in Portland, graduating seniors take remedial classes at a community college the summer before they enroll at the community college.
Caulk told students at Lafayette on Wednesday that they should take advanced placement courses and "finish strong."
He said he wanted every student to be proficient in a world language in addition to English. When Caulk asked, "Does that give me a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down?," he got a thumbs-up around the table.
"He cares about our thoughts and our school," said junior Emilee Warner.
She said Caulk asked students about their extracurricular activities as well as their academics. He encouraged them to be well rounded as they prepared for college.
"You'll see me at your games," he told students. "You'll see me at your plays."
Caulk got a ride to the bus stop Wednesday from his wife, Christol Fitzgerald.
He has said that they met at the University of Delaware as members of a student group that helps students from underrepresented populations become teachers and leaders. After 20 years of being friends, they married June 17.
"I had taken positions all around the country, while Christol stayed in Delaware," Caulk told the UDaily. "It took a while for us to reconnect, but once we did, we knew the time was right."
Fitzgerald is an educational diagnostician in a Delaware school district. After finishing this school year in Delaware, she plans to join Caulk in Lexington.