Cynthia Gunner radiated energy.

Enthusiasm sizzled from the soles of her shoes. It shimmied with the gold fringe on the shoulders of her ringmaster jacket and escaped from the top hat perched on her head.

She stood at the school door, on an overcast Wednesday morning of the first day of school in Atlanta, and threw open her arms as wide as her smile.

“Welcome to the greatest school on earth,” said the Peyton Forest Elementary School principal.

A stampede of children followed, some reluctantly, at least one tearfully, and others with excitement that nearly matched their principal’s. They walked down a circus-themed hallway. Jangly organ music and rainbow-wigged teachers dressed as clowns welcomed them back to school.

Video: Day One with Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen
Video: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In schools across Atlanta, Cobb County, Cherokee County and Decatur — districts that enroll more than 200,000 students combined — classes resumed Wednesday with fanfare and tradition.

Many other metro Atlanta districts, including DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, and Clayton, will start the school year Aug. 6.

Peyton Forest made a big to-do of back to school, partly because it’s the southwest Atlanta school’s 50th anniversary. But also because Gunner wants the children to know that fun, as well as an education, awaits them.

“A lot of our students come from very rough neighborhoods, very tough family situations,” she said. “I believe that if children are loved and they want to be here then they’ll learn, too. You can’t learn if you’re not here, and so school shouldn’t be a place where learning is dull.”

Ten-year-old Nyemma Seals paused before walking into school to start fifth grade. She stopped to take a photo with a stilt walker. (Gunner was nothing if not committed to the circus motif.)

Like many of her classmates, Nyemma said she felt a mix of excitement and nerves. Going back to school — returning to recess and writing, particularly — made her happy. She hadn’t yet met her teacher but hoped for someone nice and fun. That’s the best part of the first day, after all, “when you meet new teachers and friends,” she said.

Orlando Johnson arrived early with his 5-year-old, Zacherias, who waited silently and wore a tiny blue backpack. The father of the kindergartner said he was nervous but his son was ready.

“I’m anxious,” Johnson said. “I’ve been going over little basics with him, alphabet and numbers, trying to get him prepared.”

In Cobb County, the year began with several new school buildings, including Brumby Elementary and East Cobb Middle.

There were two dozen or so families lined up outside Brumby Elementary by the time Stephanie Matheny and her 5-year-old daughter Lena got there at 7 a.m. After a breakfast of oatmeal and and oranges, Lena was ready for her first day of first grade.

She had an idea of what it would be like: “The lunch room is big and the gym is big.”

Matheny went to the old Brumby, a circular building many said looked like a space ship. Her daughter will attend the 168,000-square-foot facility that cost about $22.8 million, paid for with special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST, funds. East Cobb Middle, on the same property, cost $28.7 million in SPLOST funds, according to the school district, which purchased the land for $9.4 million.

Matheny said her daughter, like her, will graduate from Wheeler High School.

“She’s a smart tater,” said Matheny, who waits tables at a Ruby Tuesday’s. “My kid is on the way to college.”

Bursts of heavy rain doused students and families as they walked to Oakhurst Elementary in Decatur, an old-school tradition to mark the start of the school year.

“My parents always say it’s like 1950s America in Decatur, everyone walks to school,” said Elizabeth Roke, whose son Linus began first grade.

Down the street at Renfroe Middle School, most students arrived in buses and cars. Jaclyn Schoknecht dropped her daughter Eliza off for her first day at a new school; the family moved from Buckhead to Decatur over the summer primarily because they wanted Eliza and her younger sister Willa to attend City Schools of Decatur. The girls previously attended Atlanta Public Schools.

“We went to the open house over the summer and the facilities are amazing, especially Renfroe. They have a design and innovation lab with incredible equipment, like lasers,” Schoknecht said.

In classrooms across metro Atlanta, teachers began the school year by spelling out the rules.

Boyd Elementary students recited the Atlanta school’s pledge, promising to “treat everyone with respect.”

“I will be a good listener,” they said in unison. “I will have pride in myself, my school, my family and my community.”

At Harrison High School in Kennesaw, geometry and math teacher Kimberly Johnson dispensed rules and tips for her freshman students:

You get five minutes in the bathroom. Don’t vape in the bathroom; everyone can smell a cloud of grape smoke pouring from the doorway. This vending machine is better than that one.

Back-to-school enthusiasm reached all the way to the top school leaders. APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen planned to visit numerous schools Wednesday to mark the start of her fifth school year in Atlanta. She stopped first at the district’s bus depot and then headed to Peyton Forest.

“The very first day, the first week of (the) school year are critical junctures for a healthy school year and a healthy learning life for a child. I make a big deal out of it because it is a big deal and we want our families to understand that too,” she said.

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Staff writers Ben Brasch and Amanda C. Coyne contributed to this article.