Largest wave of Allegheny County students welcomed back to school

| Monday, Aug. 25, 2014, 10:27 p.m.

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 Reach Harris at 412-388-5815 or

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