Every year, Mount Vernon Woods Elementary marks the beginning of school by holding a celebration outdoors on a cool September evening. Parents come to see one another and to meet their children’s teachers. Students come for the rare chance to run on the school’s grass without the dread of being called back in for class. And the teachers come to meet the parents of their new students and to reconnect with parents of previous years. Except for Katherine Stentzel, she comes for the babies.
“I always go and hold all the babies,” the Mount Vernon Woods teacher explained. “I seek them out. By the end of the night, I will know every baby’s name here. That baby is Matthew.” She pointed to a baby in the arms of his mother, Maritza Rivera. Then she pointed down the long table, rippling with people on either side, that ran the length of the school’s façade. “I got to hold a 21-day-old baby down there.”
“In our busy lives, sometimes you don’t even know who your neighbors are,” said PTA president Sylvia Byrd. “An event like this allows people to come together, eat and have a little fun.” Second grade teacher Michelle Faber said the picnic was convenient for many of the school’s working parents, many of whom can’t get time off for the open house during the day.
“The parents are so good,” said another teacher, Winnie Rogers, “They even bring food and ask us to eat with them.” Byrd said the school’s PTA is an active one. Its members raise money throughout the year to help pay for field trips. It helps meet basic needs by providing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at lunchtime for students who can’t buy lunch, and it also brings in cultural enrichment events, such as the pianist they hosted last year.
Many of the working relationships between the school’s staff and its parents begin at the “get-to-know-you” picnic. That cooperation will be particularly important this year, since the school will be working to raise its test scores and will offer outside tutoring for many of its students, due to sanctions imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act for failing tests two years in a row. “This is really good. It’s important,” said Justa Via, the mother of a third-grader who has come to the picnic every year since her son joined the Kindergarten. “This is the opportunity for you to meet the teachers, other parents and your son or daughter’s classmates.” Via also demonstrated that the picnic isn’t only about first impressions. She gestured towards Faber, “She’s a really good friend, my son’s teacher in second grade.”
Each year, the picnic weaves the community back together after summer break for the strength to carry itself through another school year, and beyond. “I love to get to know all the babies here,” Stentzel said, “because they are our future students.”