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Dec./Jan. 2007

School Traditions
By Wendy Hersh

A GHA tribe competes in a tug of war match
Shared school experiences have the unique ability to unite students with each other and with the school. A friendly athletic rivalry between schools, the mutual anticipation of a school dance, a graduation ceremony—such traditions form the foundation of memories, friendships and loyalties. Moreover, they help kids belong.

When parents send their child off to a new school for the first time, handing over a carefully-prepared lunch with an encouraging first-day smile, the constructed attitude of confidence often masks the questions racing through their heads: “Will this be the best fit for my child? What if my child isn’t happy there?” Parents should rest assured—schools work very hard to usher new students through this difficult transition, helping them to feel as if they belong. Many school traditions have developed over the years with this aim in mind. Creating a sense of community and loyalty, the events and rights of passage on which students rely year after year are much more than frivolous pastimes for school children. In actuality, they can make or break a student’s experience at any particular school.

Different schools have different traditions, some more entrenched than others.

The Katherine and Jacob Greenfield Hebrew Academy (GHA) in Sandy Springs was founded in 1953, and with generation after generation attending, long-standing traditions are as integral to the school as its academic curriculum or its Jewish heritage.

For more than 15 years, the school has hosted the much-anticipated Colonial Festival for its students. Held just before Thanksgiving, the festival gives children a taste of life in colonial times as they make candles and write with quills.

At the same time, new traditions at GHA are coming into being as well. Initiated by head of school Matt Lieberman, the entire student body, from kindergarten through the eighth grade, is divided into multi-grade tribes and participates in a yearlong competition. The winning tribe’s flag is flown outside the school for the entire following school year. “School traditions have the power to transform outsiders into insiders within the period of a single day,” notes Lieberman. He should know, having himself moved to the area a little over a year ago to take over the reins of the school. His daughters, too, have made the successful transformation from “newbies” to “oldtimers,” largely due to their participation in the school’s many traditions.

Mout Paran Christian School Annual homecoming parade
Upon its relocation to Kennesaw four years ago, Mount Paran Christian School began several new traditions for its students, such as an annual school tree lighting during the holiday season. And with the new campus, they can now celebrate homecoming in a big way. According to Kathleen McCook, director of communications and marketing, “One of the first traditions we began was that of an annual homecoming parade throughout the campus. Freshmen through seniors compete throughout the week in various events—spirit dress days, class participation, wall board decorations, pep rally events, and the construction of a class float for the parade. The entire school gets involved,” she notes. “The parade starts at one end of the campus and winds its way through. All grades (kindergarten on up) line the roads to watch and cheer. A grandstand is erected in front of the main office for honored guests and parents. Each year features a grand marshal of the parade and representatives from our Partners in Education program.”

For 12 years, the First Montessori School of Atlanta, founded in 1963, has hosted its Montessori mile fun run. This takes place during the school’s annual homecoming weekend, which itself is launched by International Day. Amy Wiles, the school’s director of development and marketing, particularly enjoys this special program. “With more than 57 percent of our community coming from international or ethnic backgrounds,” she explains, “this day….is always one of the most successful and fun events of our school year, providing great opportunities for students to share their cultures with each other in a meaningful way and for new families to feel more connected to the school.” Everyone has an opportunity to participate by learning songs, singing on stage and dressing in costume. Another of First Montessori’s more notable traditions is its annual school opera. Six through 12-year-olds sing, perform onstage and work behind the scenes. Last year’s opera, The Burning Rice Fields, was the school’s ninth production; more than 350 parents and community members attended. It has quickly become a favorite among students.

First Montessori School of Atlanta's annual school opera
Like many schools, Mountain View Elementary School, a public school in Cobb County, celebrates Fall Festival in October and Family nights throughout the year. But one of the more meaningful traditions is held on the very last day of school. The touching fifth grade walk commences with a video broadcast throughout the classrooms and hallways, showing a photo montage of the graduating fifth graders and the years they have spent at the school. The fifth graders begin their walk in the kindergarten and first grade hall and make their way through each of the hallways they have known since they were little. The entire school lines the corridors to greet them…and to say goodbye. Parents come too, and more than a few tears are shed.

“Last year I was new to the school as a fourth grader,” says Mountain View student Gil Tohar. Now he is looking forward to the fifth grade walk himself, proud to be a student at the school. “It will be a nice way to say goodbye to younger friends in the school and to the teachers that I’ve had.” Celebrating students and time spent at school, these traditions reinforce the idea that school is more than just a place of homework and tests—school is a place to belong, where friendships are developed and memories made. And this is something worth celebrating, year after year.

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