WHEATON – During one of the final weekends before school starts, many families with children shop for clothes and school supplies. Thousands of parents, guardians and children from across the country traveled to Westfield Mall on Aug. 24, but for reasons other than a shopping trip.
Wheaton Mall was the location of the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Back-to-School Fair, a resource fair where hundreds of parents and guardians made their way around the first floor with children, toddlers and babies in tow.
Aug. 24 was the first back-to-school fair in a few years, after the school system chose not to host it. Wheaton Mall was a new location, the fair had previously taken place on the parking lot of the Carver Educational Services Center, the location of many central office staff and board of education offices.
Spokesperson Joanne Causey, communications specialist at MCPS, said public information office staff organized the 2019 Back-To-School Fair, and while they would like the fair to return in 2020, they were not sure if they will be the department to host it.
A couple of people at the mall Saturday said they were new to the school system and had some questions.
Meheret Wossene, a Bethesda resident, said she brought her two children to the fair to look for information about bus services and academics; their cousin tagged along.
“A lot of things are different for them (my children), so that’s why I wanted to bring them here to see, and to ask questions themselves about what to expect and about how it’s different from what they knew from before,” Wossene said.
Wossene’s children are transferring from Rochambeau French International School to Burning Tree Elementary School in Bethesda.
Wossene said she found more information and help than she expected. She said the information available was so widespread that she believes the fair would be more helpful if it took place over a two-day period.
Wossene’s son Raphael, age 9, said he wanted to learn about the math curriculum, because he was interested in finding out what children were learning, and to hear about the bus system.
“Math is hard, but I want to, to practice hard and I don’t know a lot about it, so I wanted to learn more,” Raphael said.
Raphael said he also liked learning about bicycle safety and safe ways to walk to school.
Raphael’s sister Lillian, 7, said she enjoyed the scavenger hunt activity, which required talking to several teachers in various locations in the fair, who would then stamp their printed worksheets.
Raphael added that by completing the hunt, they earned prizes.
Another parent at the fair who said he was interested in learning about the school system was Lasantha Davamony. Davamony said that his children Everett, 6, and Emmelyn, 7, will attend the first and second grades, respectively, for the 2019-2020 school year at Rosemont Elementary School in Gaithersburg.
Davamony’s children were homeschooled this past year, after the family moved from California a year ago. His son Ezra is two-years-old and will attend the Goddard School.
The Gaithersburg father said his interest was “just getting information – this will be their first year attending school (in MCPS). (I’m) just kind of seeing, trying to get information about the school system in general and how everything is run.”
MCPS Board of Education member Rebecca Smondrowski (District 2) said access to various pieces of information is a key part of the fair.
“It’s going to the community and bringing information to the people where they are, as opposed to making them come to go look for everything individually,” Smondrowski said.
Causey said the fair is also an opportunity to access services that are available year round and are provided by agencies with which MCPS partners.
One service provided at the fair was immunizations for students, as long as they took records of past immunizations with them.
“Going to the fair, accessing these services (…) will have a personal touch,” Causey said. “Rather than reach out to us when you need it, we’ll come to you.”
MCPS had several tables manned by representatives of its various departments. One was psychologist Michelle Palmer, coordinator in the MCPS Division of Psychological Services, who was available at one of the tables to answer questions. She said parents and guardians at the fair with whom she spoke asked for tips for the new school year and accepted printed handouts. The handouts covered topics such as bullying, suicide and signs of suicide in a child or a child’s friends; the most-popular flyer was about cyberbullying.
“They’ve been asking about mental health support; they’ve been very interested in back-to-school tips,” said Palmer of the parents and guardians who attended.
Some people requested the name of their child’s school psychologist, which Palmer provided. Every school has a psychologist, Palmer said, although some schools share a psychologist with at least one other school.
In addition to MCPS departments, other county agencies took part in the event such as Montgomery County Fire and Rescue and the Montgomery County Board of Elections. Local organizations had tables at the fair as well.
Not everyone who attended the fair had a plan in mind when they arrived.
Germantown mom Alicia Bradley said she attended the fair partly to inform MCPS staff that she believes the fair is valuable. She said she is pleased with the school system and has been ever since her children first started attending MCPS. Her oldest child is 15 and attends Northwest High School.
“If we don’t come out, they (MCPS) won’t do it,” said Bradley about the event.
Bradley said she did not have anything specific she wanted to find when she chose to attend the fair with her family.
“Anything about school (…) or back-to-school, anything, I try to attend and show support because I want them to keep doing these kinds of things in the county,” said Bradley.