As they looked ahead to critical state tests this week, pupils at Van Bokkelen Elementary School in Severn considered where they came from and where they're going at the school's recent African American Heritage Night.
A majority of the children are African-American. They need "to realize they come from kings and queens," organizer and instructional computer technician Betty Ann Esposito told the parents and children who gathered in the auditorium last week.
The celebration is the largest of several heritage and cultural events at the school each year.
"We need to learn about ourselves and others to be able to understand each other," Principal Rose Tasker said at the ninth annual event.
In addition to a fashion show featuring African clothing, an African food tasting and pupil performances of songs of slavery, Tasker gave families a "State of the School" address, highlighting the importance of the Maryland School Assessment tests.
Third-, fourth- and fifth-graders will take the reading exams Wednesday and Thursday and math tests next week.
Last year, the percentage of third- and fifth-graders who met test standards exceeded state goals. If this achievement continues for one more year, the school will avoid sanctions.
Given the gains in test scores last year, Tasker said she is confident that the school will earn another celebration after this year's exams.
"Can we do these things? I'm telling you that we can," she told parents.
But the school needs help, the principal said. She asked families to read with their children every day. A handout for parents also suggested avoiding movies and video games that might excite children too much and scheduling doctor's appointments on nontesting days.
Several speakers told the audience that humble beginnings should not stop them from achieving their goals.
"It doesn't matter where you start your life," said Jonathan Brice, the school system's director of program planning.
Other presenters described the experience of the Buffalo Soldiers, black units formed after the Civil War, and detailed features of the new Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open this summer in Baltimore.
Parents said they learned from the event, just as their children did. "When I went to Africa, I was able to understand a little because I had been to African American Heritage Night," said Rhonda Ulmer, a mother of three children at the school, who visited Tunisia last summer.