Aberdeen resident Alex Watkins and his 9-year-old daughter, Mariah, walked side-by-side through the neighborhood surrounding Bakerfield Elementary School on Tuesday morning, part of the second annual Million Father March to welcome Bakerfield parents and students back for the start of a new school year.
Mariah, who is starting the fourth grade, was among the roughly 38,000 Harford County Public Schools students who went back to school Tuesday for the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year. Her father was among the many Bakerfield dads who participated in the back-to-school event and wore gray T-shirts bearing the words “Million Father March.”
They and their children were accompanied by mothers walking with their kids, school administrators and staff, Aberdeen Police Department officers, elected officials such as state Del. Andrew Cassilly, County Councilman Curtis Beulah, Board of Education President Jansen Robinson and HCPS officials, including Superintendent Sean Bulson, who is in his second year leading the county schools.
More than 200 people participated in the march, according to Bakerfield Principal Tara Dedeaux, who greeted the marchers as they arrived at the school’s main entrance. School faculty and staff, and parents, welcomed the children with music, noisemakers and high-fives.
“Let’s start a great school year, and welcome back!” said Dedeaux, who has been principal for 6 ½ years.
Watkins walked through the halls with Mariah, who was eager to get to her classroom. Her mother, Ashley Evans, joined them in the hallway.
“I’m looking forward to seeing my friends,” said Mariah, whose favorite subject is writing.
Watkins, who walked in the Million Father March last year, said this year’s event had “more than double” the participation.
“We had a good time,” he said. “We met some of [Mariah’s] classmates from last year, some of the classmates from this year. It’s a really good way to start the school year."
Evans, Mariah’s mother, did not participate in the march, but she asked her daughter if she thought it was “a cool way to start school,” to which Mariah nodded “yes.”
“Moms have lots of things,” Evans said. “Today was a dad moment.”
Dedeaux, the principal, said the Million Father March is designed to increase male involvement in the school. Bakerfield has about 425 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, she said.
“The march was a huge success,” she said. “It was a great, positive way to bring the kids back into the school, so I’m happy.”
Fathers can also be involved in welcoming students to school throughout the year on Fridays for “Smile Makers,” during which dads are on-hand to greet children as they enter at the start of the day, “just to let the kids see that the dads are involved,” Dedeaux said.
“The kids love it — they get so excited,” the principal continued. “It’s a great way to start the day, bring positivity to each and every day.”
Fathers and school staff continued to welcome students at the front entrance after the march ended, and more pupils arrived on school buses. Two of the fathers — Royce Bailey and Nathan McVey, both of Aberdeen — who exchanged high-fives with the children, are also regular participants in Smile Makers.
“A nice face in the morning can change a child’s day, so that’s why we’re here,” said Bailey, whose 10-year-old son, Myles, started fifth grade Tuesday.
McVey, who has two children at Bakerfield, said Smile Makers helps fathers get out of their comfort zones because they can see “other grown men out here, smiling, giving high-fives,” plus it helps from a safety and security standpoint.
“If the parents of the children are out here, then the community knows that the dads are watching, too,” he said.
McVey noted Bakerfield has a number of parent-involvement events geared toward mothers, too. He encouraged any parent who wants to get involved to contact the school administration.
Bailey said he thinks Bakerfield is one of the best schools in Aberdeen, as administrators and teachers “bring a certain sense of community."
“It’s a very positive, upbeat environment for a school, and that positivity makes a difference, I think,” he said.
Tsegaye Ameno, of Aberdeen, dropped of his 5 ½-year-old daughter, Johanna Egiso, for her first day of kindergarten. She greeted her friend and classmate, Eden Abebe — Ameno noted that his family and Eden’s family are very close, as both families immigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia.
“She is very excited and we are very happy, also, because kids, they grow fast and they understand [schoolwork] very fast,” he said of his daughter.
Ameno said public schools in the United States are the “best for kids’ education,” compared to the schools he attended growing up in Ethiopia. Schoolchildren in his home country did not have enough materials, it could take two months to get “one good book,” while in the U.S., “in a second you can get what you need,” he said.
“When I compare with mine and with my daughter’s [education], completely different,” Ameno said.
Robinson, the school board president, described the march as “great” and said he was glad to see so many parents enthusiastic about the start of school, as well as the students.
“We need to celebrate our kids,” he said. “They need to know that we care.”
Robinson suggested that the school system hold similar events during the middle of the year, to keep up the enthusiasm among students and parents, and celebrate HCPS and its students.
“There’s so much negative stuff going on in the world, but this is good stuff,” he said.