Army Col. Robert Phillips exchanged hi-fives with nearly every student as they got off their bus for their first day of school at Roye-Williams Elementary School Tuesday and wished them good luck.
Phillips, commander of the Army garrison at Aberdeen Proving Ground, rode Bus 500 along with APG Command Sgt. Maj. Toese Tia as the bus wound its way through residential areas of the post and surrounding parts of Aberdeen.
They joined Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan and her top aides, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, County Councilman Mike Perrone and, other APG representatives on the superintendent’s traditional first-day bus ride.
More than 37,000 students across Harford County started school Tuesday kicking off the 2017-2018 school year.
“This is just a great opportunity to see the kids come in for school,” Phillips said.
About 70 percent of the more than 500 students at Roye-Williams, on Oakington Road between Aberdeen and Havre de Grace, come from military or civilian Defense Department workers assigned to APG, according to Principal Rose Martino.
Tia, the command sergeant major, said his daughter completed her time at Roye-Williams last year, and she is attending Aberdeen Middle School this year.
“She's a little nervous, but she enjoyed her development here at Roye-Williams, and it prepared her for where she's at now,” Tia said.
He said the school has “passionate teachers who are true to their profession of developing the future.”
The students who rode Bus 500 either chatted with the adults sitting next to them, or they talked with each other excitedly about the start of school.
“I’m very, very, very happy,” fourth-grader Nevaeha Jones, 10, said.
Her friend and seatmate, 10-year-old fifth-grader Cassie Thims, talked about her favorite part of school.
“I like running— so it’s gym,” Cassie said.
The students were greeted by teachers and staff cheering and playing tambourines, and other instruments.
Harford Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler was on hand for the welcome, too.
“I like to go to the school where the superintendent is going to be and greet the kids as they come back to school,” Gahler said.
Lisanti, whose district includes Aberdeen and Havre de Grace, said the celebration reminded her of her childhood — her father, Sam Lisanti, was an elementary school principal in Cecil County.
“It's rejuvenating, seeing the excitement in the eyes of children,” she said.
Lisanti noted “you take these children's faces and their voices and their hearts with you” when fighting for school funding in Annapolis.
A small group of parents held their children’s hands while waiting in line to sign in at the school office.
Greg Hall, of Havre de Grace, held his 5-year-old daughter Reba’s hand. She was starting kindergarten Tuesday. Reba is the first of his three children to go to school.
“It seems like a good school for her,” he said of Roye-Williams. “She's excited, and I was excited.”
This year is the first in many years that public schools in Maryland have started after Labor Day, thanks to an executive order Gov. Larry Hogan issued last summer.
“I'd rather start after Labor Day than have to get that day off [from school],” Hall said. “You put them in one day and take them out the next.”
Allyson Townsend, who was waiting with her 5-year-old son, Ayden, said she appreciated the post-Labor Day start, too.
“[The students] get started, and then they go straight through,” she said.
Her son, who said he was most excited about lunch, started kindergarten Tuesday. He attended Roye-Williams for pre-kindergarten last year.
“He liked it, so he's excited to meet new friends,” Townsend said.
Martino, the principal, shared her thoughts about the beginning of a new school year. She started her fourth year as principal on Tuesday. Prior, she served as assistant principal for four years.
“I just love when the building is alive with faces,” she said.
Roye-Williams’ student population fluctuates between 500 and 550 children in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, according to Martino.
She said the school offers onsite and off-site counseling services for children in military families, to help them cope with frequent moves and if their parents are deployed.
She said there are not as many students with deployed parents as when she started eight years ago, but military parents still go on temporary duty assignments that take them away from home a few months at a time.
“They need some support during [this] time and we provide that to them,” she said of the students.
Martino said students are organized into “houses,” or groups of children in different grades. They meet with faculty and staff on a regular basis for activities, to discuss service projects, taking care of each other and doing one good deed each day.
She said school officials hope older students will stop to help younger students when they see them having trouble, based on their experiences in the houses.
“It doesn't matter what grade you are, when you're in school we’re one Roye-Williams family,” Martino said.