Working on a tight schedule, each class at the Owings Mills school for children with learning and developmental disabilities built their entries, bearing in mind this year's "O Say Can You See" theme. With teachers' supply carts for wheels, they marched their sparkling displays before a panel of judges.
An elementary class mixed a bit of Dr. Seuss into the project. They wore the familiar Cat in the Hat stripes, made smiley faces on balloons and cut star patterns into paper bags. Another class outlined a big red wagon with letters to soldiers.
"Thank you for fighting for our country," 10-year-old Danny Simon wrote. "We appreciate your hard work."
A middle school class built Lady Liberty out of green construction paper and placed a classmate's grinning photo in the spot for a face.
"That's my face on hers," said Jack King, 10.
Yosef Katz, 12, who said he once was "even inside the statue but not all the way to the top," pronounced the color choice accurate. "She used to be copper-colored, but over time, the air turned her green."
The high school teams drew on their engineering, art and research skills as they fashioned floats with multitiered sparklers and firecrackers, a towering lighthouse and a model of the HMS Tonnant, the ship from which Francis Scott Key viewed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814.
A mannequin with many different features took the prize for most creative.
"We are all different," said Krissy Walter, 16, wearing oversized red-white-and-blue glasses frames made from pipe cleaners. "We come in all shapes, colors and sizes, but we all share the American dream."
The judges deliberated long enough for the students and their audience to sing several patriotic songs and for about 10 children to take turns reciting the lines of the Declaration of Independence. Grady Naylor, 10, started the reading and finished the recitation with "Happy 4th, Mom."
After what they called a truly difficult, close decision, the judges awarded "best in show" to the lighthouse float, which, they said, incorporated theme and supplies in the cleverest way.
Students surrounded the lighthouse, modeled after the school's signature symbol, with cardboard dioramas of familiar Baltimore scenes — Camden Yards with a large 'O' baseball, the Inner Harbor with tiny ships, Fort McHenry and its barracks and the Flag House, draped in the nation's banner.
Tom Kerney, 15, introduced the scene with "Come on down to beautiful Baltimore, home of history and culture." He and classmates posed for yearbook photos with their winning float and their trophy.