Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Bell rings on back-to-school

Thousands flock to event kicking off another year

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Charles E. Shoemaker/The Gazette
Bianca Renzo, 3, of Potomac sits in the driver's seat of a school bus Saturday at the county school system's Back-to-School Fair at the Carver Educational Services Center in Rockville. About 5,000 attended the fair, well beyond numbers expected by the county.

Organizers of the county school system's Back-to-School Fair on Saturday didn't quite know what to expect for the first-ever event. They certainly weren't counting on the estimated 5,000 people who attended.

"Parents just loved [having] an opportunity to come and learn information about the school system," said Eric A. Davis, the school system's director of family and community partnerships, which hosted the fair.

Organizer had planned for about 2,000 attendees, he said, adding that the supply of give-away bags and T-shirts ran out early.

Montgomery County Public Schools, the largest school system in Maryland, will open another school year on Tuesday with an enrollment of 137,763, according to MCPS data.

Saturday's fair was about "putting a human face on a lot of the information we put out to parents and answer as many questions as possible," said Aggie Alvez, director of communications for MCPS.

"We wanted to set a positive tone for parents to begin the school year, to provide a link between home and school," Davis said.

The scene at the Carver Educational Services Center in Rockville looked like a back-to-school party.

Whether it was the blaring percussion of the live band, the vocals of "Let's Get It Started," or the pulsating rhythm of "Hey Ya!" children and parents could not stop dancing under the blazing August sun.

Even school board President Nancy Navarro couldn't fight the feeling, moving in her seat to Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop ‘Til You Get Enough," and salsa dancing later.

Who knew going back to school could be so exciting?

Children won prizes for dancing and received an interactive lesson on the Promethian SmartBoards, used primarily in the $10 million plan to reform middle schools.

There were international food vendors, raffle prizes and performances from student groups.

Even the big, yellow school bus made an appearance. Students — mostly younger ones — and their parents walked through the bus to get a feel for the traditional mode of student transportation.

Buses were used to ferry parents and children to the fair from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring and Northwest High School in Germantown.

Local businesses donated more than $70,000 in goods to the fair.

"This was a definite team effort," Davis said. "We've been planning this since March. Next year, we will start planning it earlier."

Families attended the fair for different reasons. Some parents wanted to learn as much as possible about the process of sending their children to school for the first time. Others wanted to learn more about the system's program offerings.

Cheryl Shaw and Lois Errera liked that so much information, which is normally scattered throughout the school system's Web site, was readily available in one place. Their children, both 7 years old, have been best friends since they were 3 and are going to the second grade together at Olney Elementary School.

Eric and Beth Richardson, of Chevy Chase, brought the entire family out, which included daughter, Abby, and son, Jay.

But it is young Emma who is headed off to school next week. Emma, 5, will go to kindergarten at Rosemary Hills Elementary School.

When asked if she is looking forward to school, Emma grinned and shook her head "No," which amused her parents.

She did like the school bus, though.

"I liked playing with the switches," she said.