Shortly after 6 p.m., parents began trickling into the Homestead/Wakefield Elementary School in Bel Air.
Principal Dale Hunsinger and Assistant Principal Eric Laughlin greeted them at the door.
A few feet away, a line formed for parents who were asking parent volunteers Lisa Roberts and Kaelyn Lamas about volunteer opportunities.
In the classrooms, teachers prepared packets of information, writing notes on chalkboards and preparing overhead projections for the visiting parents.
It was back-to-school night, an annual ritual at Homestead/Wakefield that will be repeated at all 51 county schools. The events draw thousands of parents, who hear the latest school news and get a chance to ask questions, express concerns and get a firsthand glimpse of the place where their children will spend the bulk of their day over the next several months.
"This is a time for parents to see what their child's teacher and classroom looks like," said Hunsinger, who has been at the school for nine years. "It's also a time to come and see what's going on at the school and how they as parents can help."
Although each of the county's schools holds a similar event between now and the end of the month, Homestead's is one of the first, Laughlin said.
"We hold our back-to-school night early so that parents don't have to wait to ask their questions," he said. "We want them to know their child's teachers from the start of school."
As the 7 p.m. start time drew near, Laughlin, who had predicted a crowd of about 600, wasn't surprised when he saw the cafeteria filled with parents.
He attributed the large turnout to the school's long tenure and the alumni who return when their children attend.
"We're one of the oldest and largest elementary schools in the county," Laughlin said. "So many of the parents attended the school as children, so they care about the school and they come back to see what's going on."
There is typically a lot to see, Hunsinger said. To avoid giving the parents too much information at one time, the night is usually separated into a short meeting, then classroom visits by the parents.
Some schools, including Prospect Mills Elementary and secondary schools, divide the night by grade level. Some of the schools have a specific date or time allotted to each grade. In Homestead/Wakefield's case, it is split between the two buildings.
"We have to have each building on a separate night or we would just have too many people here at one time," Hunsinger said.
At most schools, the meeting includes comments from the principal and the PTA president, who goes over fundraising projects planned for the school year.
"We include the PTA because we want people to know all the things they do for the school," Hunsinger said. "Although we have two big fundraisers - the carnival and the walkathon - we try to encourage the parents to volunteer for one of the other projects at the school as well."
The possibilities include working in the cafeteria, school beautification, the book fair, hospitality, the yearbook, recycling and an art show.
Back-to-school night is the only time during the school year when so many people are at the school at one time, Lamas said. So she tries to make the most of it.
"I want to raise awareness of the PTA and what we are doing," she said. "I want to show parents that there is something out there that everyone can do to help."
The teachers have their own objectives for the evening.
Third-grade teacher Amy Bowser uses the time to inform parents about such things as classroom homework and behavior policies, and she also tries to get to know the parents.
"When I meet the parents, I get a better sense of the children," Bowser said. "You can learn a lot about a child just by getting to know the parents. And at the same time, the parents get a sense of me and my expectations for the school year."
Third-grade teacher Erica Lyons agreed. She and her pupils created a list of things that they thought every parent should know. And if the parents didn't know something on the list, the children asked Lyons to teach them that night.
The list comprises basic life skills, including how to earn money, buy food, get a job, obey laws, avoid talking to strangers, fixing a television, writing in cursive, telling time and saying yes sometimes.
"I think education should be fun, and I thought since the parents don't know me, this would be a good way to get them familiar with my expectations," Lyons said.
She has only one expectation of her pupils.
"I want them to find learning exciting," Lyons said. "And I want that excitement to stick with them throughout their educational career."
Student teacher Kaitlyn Kravec, a sophomore at Villa Julie College, was there to see how that is done.
"I want to learn how to teach and how to be prepared," said the 18-year-old Bel Air resident, who often played school in the basement of her home as a child. "I want to teach to impact my students the way my first- through third-grade teachers impacted me."