Southwood residents receiving community information during the Back to School Festival

Students who attend Albemarle County Public Schools are preparing to return to their classrooms August 20.

To ready students and families from the Southwood Community for the school year, and to connect them to local services, Albemarle and several partners held the sixth annual Back to School Festival Wednesday.

“It’s just a great opportunity to have a festive afternoon and have the students meet the teachers and the teachers meet the students and say ‘Hi’ to old friends and new friends,” said Gloria Rockhold, Albemarle’s community engagement manager.

The students who live in Southwood attend Cale Elementary School, Burley Middle School and Monticello High School, and the community is largely Hispanic. Bernard Hairston, Albemarle’s director of community engagement, said the school division is 9 percent Hispanic.

The day’s community partners included Habitat for Humanity—which owns Southwood—Region 10, Children, Youth and Family Services, and Book Baskets, amongst others.

Javier Figueroa-Ray, program manager for Region 10, said the gathering builds community.

“They see that there’s an investment, and by us investing our time and our resources families begin to realize little by little that this is a genuine investment from the community to them, so they want to repay that and be part of the process,” Figueroa-Ray said.

Susan Gainer, treasurer of Book Baskets, noted that the group received a grant that allowed them to purchase bilingual books this year.

“The goal is to read, period,” Gainer said, noting that the grant made it possible to send each student home with two free books.  

“Our general hope is to increase children’s love of learning and love of books, and hopefully to increase their capacity to learn in school and to succeed in their education,” Jane Ransom, chair of Book Baskets added.

Gail Epps, a teacher at Monticello High School, said the event helps break down cultural barriers.

“In this country most teachers are middle-aged white women, and we know that children do better when they form relationships,” Epps said, citing that students might hesitate to bond with an adult they perceive to have little in common with them.

“The student might not approach me, but I have no excuse for not approaching the student in a county that supports us getting into the community,” Epps added.

Lourdes Vazquez, a parent of three County students, agreed.

“I feel good that we get this kind of support from the teachers, and that they learn from us as much as we learn from them,” Vazquez said.

Curtis Wills, an operations manager for Wal-Mart—the festival’s corporate sponsor—said the company’s employees are always eager to volunteer at the Back to School Festival.

“This is really a great opportunity to make an impact with the youth, and it involves education, it just covers so many different facets,” Wills said.

Even though summer is winding down, 6-year-old Sam Ramirez is looking forward to returning to Cale.

“I’m excited about going back to school…and doing homework,” Ramirez said.