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Largest wave of Allegheny County students welcomed back to school

| Monday, Aug. 25, 2014, 10:27 p.m.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Students file off the buses into Osborne Elementary School in Glen Osborne Monday Aug. 25, 2014, for the first day of school.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Khalil Jenkins (left), 7, of Pitcairn and Brennan Weiler (center), 7, of Monroeville put their new clear backpacks into their lockers on their first day of second grade at Cleveland Steward Jr. Elementary School in Monroeville on Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. Gateway School District implemented new backpack guidelines as a result of a student carrying a gun in his backpack last year.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Devaughn Earl-Hayden, 7, of Monroeville, checks out his new clear backpack given to him on his first day of second grade at Cleveland Steward Jr. Elementary School in Monroeville on Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. Gateway School District implemented new backpack guidelines as a result of a student carrying a gun in his backpack last year. 'Making sure our kids are coming to a safe environment is of the utmost importance,' said school principal Michael Jack. 'Academics can't occur without that.'
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Second-grade teacher Heather Kuehn of North Huntington hands out clear backpacks to her students on the first day of school at Cleveland Steward Jr. Elementary School in Monroeville on Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. 'I think it's wonderful that they're being provided for the students, cause it's hard to find,' said Kuehn of the backpacks. Gateway School District implemented new backpack guidelines as a result of a student carrying a gun in his backpack last year.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Paraprofessional JoAnn Newingham welcomes fifth-grader Lilly Bowen, 10, as she arrives for the first day of school at Fort Allen Elementary in Hempfield Area School District on Aug. 25, 2014.
Eric Felack | Trib Total Media
Mary Queen of Apostles School pre-school teacher Kathleen Nesko escorts first grader Niviah Andree to the proper bus after a half-day of classes that began the year at the Catholic school at Mt. St. Peters Church in New Kensington on Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. Five public school districts in the Alle-Kiski Valley began classes Monday with another seven to begin by Wednesday.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Students and parents make their way to Osborne Elementary School in Glen Osborne Monday Aug. 25, 2014, for the first day of school.

More than 77,000 students in Allegheny County were part of the latest and largest wave of Western Pennsylvania children to return to school on Monday.

Other school districts will begin classes after Labor Day.

In Moon Area School District, the heartfelt thank-you of an anonymous mom went viral on Facebook when she praised a boy named Ben, a Brooks Elementary second-grader who comforted her screaming, tear-soaked son on the school bus with three words: “Kindergarten is cool.”

“With that simple sentence, you made my son feel accepted,” she wrote. “You made him feel that everything was going to be OK. You not only saved his first day, but also his whole school experience.”

One kindergarten class in Jamestown School District in Mercer County was composed of five sets of twins and one set of triplets.

“Jamestown is a small community,” Superintendent Tracy Reiser said. “They all knew about each other, of course.”

In Bethel Park, 28 members of the high school's National Honor Society chalked sidewalks outside five elementary schools with phrases, quotes and drawings to welcome younger students back to school.

“Make a new friend today,” said one. “A mind is like a parachute — it doesn't work until it's opened,” mused another.

“The focus of every administrator on day one is to make sure every student gets in safely, feels welcomed and gets home OK,” said Curt Baker, Moon Area superintendent. “If we accomplish that, we're off to a great start.”

Fulfilling a policy passed in the spring, Gateway School District distributed clear backpacks to students at the start of school on Monday. The district established the rule because a 6-year-old arrived in April with a loaded .45-caliber handgun in his book bag.

Julian Pelaez's face lit up as his teacher, Heather Kuehn, handed out the bags at Dr. Cleveland Steward Jr. Elementary School in Monroe­ville.

“I'm really happy. I didn't really have a book bag,” said Julian, 7, of Pitcairn.

Principal Mike Jack said the move brings peace of mind to teachers, students and parents.

“Academic excellence can't occur without safety,” he said.

Bill Bond, a specialist for school safety for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said moving to clear backpacks is a logical idea for a district that has had incidents involving weapons in book bags.

“Schools need to take whatever action they deem as appropriate,” Bond said.

Daniel R. Castagna, superintendent of West Mifflin Area School District, said the day was “eerily quiet, one of the smoothest starts we've had in a while.”

In Avonworth, children beamed as they entered the new two-story primary center, where teachers used color schemes to set up “neighborhoods” unique to every grade.

“When students come back, they're just so excited,” said Avonworth spokeswoman Dana Hackley. “Our whole team is. We're ready to get the school year rolling.”

Daveen Rae Kurutz and Megan Harris are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Kurutz at 412-871-2365 or dkurutz@tribweb.com. Reach Harris at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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