The staff at the Nancy S. Grasmick State Education Building downtown is scrambling.
This morning, Nancy S. Grasmick herself, the State Superintendent of Schools, announced that she would retire in June. A press conference was hastily called and a dozen members of the press showed up so quickly that there hasn't been time to find the Board of Ed podium, a microphone, chairs, and other equipment generally required for such an event.
Once everything is finally in place, Grasmick explains in her expert, reassuring way that, after 20 years on the job and an impressive list of achievements, she's ready to move on to other projects. The top project on the list? Her first vacation in two years.
"I'm a little ambivalent about the decision," she admits. "I truly love this department, the superintendents, and, most of all, the students—I do not love getting up at 5 a.m. every day."
She says no one is pushing her out. It's a decision she's considered for a long time, but there was always one more project to finish, whether it was starting the board's Department for Leadership or winning a $250 million federal Race to the Top grant last year.
"Finally," she says, "I feel like I can leave the department in a good place."
Indeed, as she leaves, Maryland has been rated the best school system in the country for three straight years, and had the best AP test results, also for three straight years. Scores in reading and math have increased for seven consecutive years. And as a result of Grasmick's work promoting early-childhood education—one of her top priorities—kindergarten "readiness" has jumped from 49 to 81 percent.
After she finishes, Grasmick hugs members of the press—some of whom have been covering her throughout her tenure. "You all have been wonderful," she says.
Then, there are hugs for the staff. "It was so hard not to tell you last night," she says to one of them. Her decision was kept secret from everyone until today.
As the press files out, she glances at a clock. "I have to go call these superintendents," she says. "I'm only halfway down the list."
Her work is not quite done.
There's a commotion around the Zoo's elephant exhibit on this sunny Saturday as dozens of giddy tykes approach, some with homemade cards and signs.
Four resident pachyderms lope around, glancing at the crowd as if wondering what the fuss is about. Finally, the littlest of the pack, Samson, emerges.
"There he is!" a girl shouts.
The crowd cheers, applauds, and sings "Happy Birthday."
Today, Samson, already taller than his trainers, turns three.
Guests line up for cake, provided by Charm City Cakes, who also created the four-tiered towering pastel-colored cake soon to be presented to the animals, decorated with dancing elephants wearing birthday hats.
Kids wave signs to Samson, but he's understandably more interested in the elephant-friendly cake than birthday wishes.
Finally, the dairy-free, sugar-free, salt-free corn meal sheet cakes—decorated with mashed potato "icing," apples, oranges, carrots, and lettuce—are presented to each of the five elephants. A single peeled banana sticks out of Samson's cake in lieu of a candle.
As soon as the cake is placed in front of him, Samson elegantly swipes the banana off with his truck. Then, he does what any elephant would do: He flips the cake over and eats the cardboard underneath.