Astoria Superintendent Michael Sowder started the first day of school as many students do - on a bus.

"You can sure learn a lot about the district and kids and the community by riding the buses," Sowder said.

If not, you can learn about the size of a child's backpack, back-to-school fashion or the latest slang.

"I bet you're in fourth grade," Sowder teased Cassie Christensen as she boarded the bus bound for Lewis and Clark Elementary.

"No, I'm too skinny," she said giggling.

Cassie, 7, carried a backpack full of Kleenex, a supply required for her second grade class.

Cassie changed subjects as often as expressions, grasped a bus seat and listened to the conversation behind her. Then she turned to another bus rider: "Guess what? He just said: 'Cook your hamster and eat it.' Gross!" Cassie wrinkled her nose.

Studies have shown the bus driver can make or break the day for a student, Sowder said. Bus driver Debbie Christensen (no relation to Cassie) said she sees that first-hand.

"It's important to me to learn all my kids names," Christensen said. "It makes them feel important."

She started driving a bus nearly two decades ago so she could be home with her children during vacations. Now her youngest, Thomas, is a freshman at Astoria High School. The 14-year-old starts his school day at the bus barn every morning with his mom.

Beside Warren Field, the bus barn is a lot where most of the buses are parked outside except for one being worked on in the shop. The district is considering moving the buses to a location where they can park inside, Sowder said. But he's only tentatively investigated the issue.

Joannie Zielinski runs the operation from "Grand Central Station" - which is already buzzing at 6:30 a.m. as drivers prepare to pick up students.

Christensen checked No. 20 Tuesday morning as Thomas awaited his first day. He was up at 5:30 a.m. to feed the cows he raises for beef and shows at fairs.

"When you're a freshman, ... the seniors are just always mean to you, unless you know them," he said.

Playing football helped him meet many of the seniors. He wasn't worried about his first day of school. As the bus rounded through town, it collected several students for Astoria middle and high schools.

Rachel Johnson, a sophomore, said she's curious to see the freshmen she hasn't seen since they were in seventh grade.

"They've probably grown up a lot since then," said Rachel, who also is looking forward to her old friends.

The 15-year-old has been grounded for some of the summer - mostly for trying to hang out with kids when her mom doesn't approve.

"I started hanging out with them because I was bored," she said of the upper-classmen she met in band.

Meanwhile, eighth-grader Ashley Kroll sat on the bus, clad in new clothes - a short sleeved T-shirt over a long-sleeved shirt. She pondered her second day of classes - the middle school started classes Monday.

"I have to find out if the teachers are boring or interesting because that's going to make the whole year," she said.

As Christensen dropped students off at the high school and middle school, she picked up students for Lewis and Clark Elementary. Cassie was among them.

On the first day of school, she had only two concerns - two pesky letters C and S that she keeps confusing and the nicknames kids use to tease her.

"They keep calling me names at school, like, 'Little,'" said the tiny girl as she bounded off to a new class.


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