John White, a 31-year-old safety director for an ironwork company, took yesterday morning off from work to go back to school - elementary school.
"It's my daughter's first day. I thought it was important that I be here," said White, who was peering through the doorway of his 6-year-old's first-grade class at Deep Run Elementary School in Elkridge.
About 400 other parents at the school had the same idea, taking time from work to join their children in the First Day of School America campaign, which had its debut in Howard County yesterday at Deep Run as 14 districts in the state started the first phase of the back-to-school wave, which ends when city schools return Sept. 2.
The program asks parents to come into class on day one in the hopes that they will stay involved in their kids' education every day after that, something administrators always encourage.
"Thirty years of research show the most significant factor in a child's success is parent involvement," said Fran Donaldson, Deep Run's principal and president of the Maryland Association of Elementary School Principals. "[It's key] to building a good foundation for a successful school."
In Howard, which sent more than 47,000 children and 4,000 teachers back to its 70 schools yesterday, community outreach is a primary concern.
"We want every single parent involved, and we're committed to meeting them halfway - in their neighborhoods, in their homes," said Superintendent John R. O'Rourke. "We're not content to passively sit back. We're going out and recruiting them."
The county reorganized the structure of the Department of Education over the summer and developed a new Department of Student, Family and Community Services, charged in large part with drawing parents into the process by tightening community connections.
"It's a wrap-around approach," Robert Glascock, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said in an earlier interview about the department. "We're asking faith-based organizations, nonprofits and civic organizations to really look at what their communities can be doing to accelerate student achievement."
State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who stopped by Deep Run on a three-school tour yesterday morning, credited that kind of effort with making Howard County the best-performing school system in the state.
"If we have your child every single school day ... we will have had them for 9 percent of their lives. You will have had them for 91 percent," Grasmick told parents. "Your role is critical."
The parents of Deep Run's 650 children seem to know it. They came in droves - as did county politicians - to trail behind the children and show support.
School board members, County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, County Executive James N. Robey, Police Chief Wayne Livesay and several representatives from the fire department lined up outside the school to applaud the entering children, many of whom looked puzzled - though pleased - by the display.
"My son said, 'What is all of this?' " said Amy Warren, whose 8-year-old, Markil, is starting third grade. "I just told him it was because 'you guys are very special.' "
A 'simple idea'
When First Day of School America began, it started with 11 Vermont schools as a grassroots effort to build partnerships with parents. Since then, schools in every state have tried it, according to the First Day Foundation, with many getting started by downloading the free guide online (www.firstday. org). The foundation estimates that more than 10,000 schools will participate this year.
"It's very exciting to see how it just grows by leaps and bounds," said Denise Goodwin, the operations manager of First Day Foundation. "It's a really simple idea, but it's a simple good idea, and everyone can take it and make it their own."
Last year, schools in Baltimore and Annapolis joined in, and Glascock said he hopes to bring it to all Howard schools next school year.
Teachers seemed to love the idea, particularly for the calming effect the parents had on the children.
Easing the transition
"I haven't heard one sob," said first-grade teacher Sally Maseritz, who has been educating Howard County children for 30 years. She was referring to the youngsters, but she could have been talking about the parents, as well.
The first day of school is traditionally stressful for the moms and dads of the youngest children, such as 4-year-old Gabriella Giordano, who started kindergarten yesterday. Her mother, Maria Giordano, watched her intently from the back of the class.
"It's tough," Giordano said of sending her daughter off to school. But she added that getting to see Gabriella and the teacher in action went a long way to ease her mind.
"I think parents left feeling much more comfortable with where their children are and the staff members who are there to take care of them," Donaldson said after the day was over. "I think they left with a good feeling. They know their kids are in safe hands."
John White and his first-grade daughter, Marana, moved to Howard three months ago from Baltimore County, specifically because of the school system, which was ranked the best in the state last week, based on Maryland School Assessment scores. Getting to check the school out firsthand helped assure White he had made the right choice.
"It's been very welcoming," White said.
"It's that whole concept of 'it takes a village to raise a child,' " Glascock said. "We know that we have a main role in this, but so do families and the community, and when you put all three together - families, communities and schools - and link them tightly, it will have significant impact on student achievement. We can't do it independently. It won't work."