An entrance made of balloons, a cheering crowd holding signs and a person dressed as a giant frog made the first day of school at Weil Elementary in the Hill District look a lot like a pep rally.
And that's exactly what it was supposed to be.
This morning, as kindergartners wearing packs on their backs and wary looks on their faces arrived at school, they were greeted with high fives and hugs from a frog named Ready Freddy.
Football and basketball games warrant pep rallies, said Bob Nelkin, president and chief professional officer of United Way of Allegheny County, and so should the first day of school.
He, along with volunteers from United Way, the University of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Public Schools, made up a cheering squad at Weil Elementary and five other schools in Pittsburgh this morning, greeting students as they arrived by foot, car or bus.
"The concept is very simple," Mr. Nelkin said. "The first day of school is very exciting."
Donnell Deaderick, a 5-year-old arriving for his first day of kindergarten at Weil, didn't know there would be a crowd cheering him and offering high fives as he walked down the sidewalk.
He also didn't know he'd walk under an entrance made of balloons or be greeted by a fifth-grade grade teacher wearing a full-body green frog suit.
"But I knew," said his mother, Christina Freeman of the Hill District, who works for Bank of America and whose daughter, Dawnasia Deaderick, is an 8-year-old starting third grade at Weil. "That's why I took the day off."
As her children walked into school, she was walking behind them, recording every moment on her cell phone. Dawnasia didn't tell her brother what he could expect. His mother "just told him it's gonna be exciting."
The first-day pep rally -- a tradition in its fourth year at Weil -- is a way to get kindergartners, who are "typically scared to death," excited about starting school, said Holly Ballard, the school's principal.
"This is a way that we can show them that this is a wonderful place, that we are excited about them being here," she said.
It's a process that starts well before the first day of school, said Ken Smythe-Leistico, assistant director at the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development.
Although kindergarten is not mandatory in the state of Pennsylvania, Mr. Smythe-Leistico said his office, as well as the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the United Way, stress to parents that the kindergarten year is important.
They go door to door, encouraging parents to sign up their children for kindergarten and also to attend the first day, citing research that shows students who do not attend kindergarten or are frequently absent are less likely to read at grade level years in the future.
Five years ago, before the Ready Freddy program began at Weil, 25 percent of registered kindergarten students were showing up for the first day of school, and some students were arriving as late as January, he said.
In the past four years, the number of students attending the first day of kindergarten has reached 100 percent, Mr. Smythe-Leistico said. This year, with 51 students signed up for two kindergarten classes, about 70 percent were present on the first day of school, he said.
"Trying to get the word out about just how important that kindergarten year is has raised parents' awareness of the significance," Mr. Smythe-Leistico said.
Once students and their parents were gathered in the auditorium, talk about the first day of kindergarten quickly turned to talk of graduation day, 13 years in the future.
To get from kindergarten to senior year successfully, Ms. Ballard told parents to start by setting a bedtime, to engage with teachers and administrators and to ask children what they learned at school each day, and never take "nothing" for an answer.
If the kindergartners seated in the auditorium went to class, maintained at least a 2.5 GPA and graduated high school, their school district, through The Pittsburgh Promise program, would help them pay for college, district Superintendent Linda Lane said.
"I know kindergarten parents may think, 'really, my kid's in kindergarten, we're thinking about the Pittsburgh Promise?'" said Ms. Ballard in an interview. "But today is truly the day that we start."
Donnell, still wearing his backpack, sat next to his mother in the auditorium, waiting to begin his first day of kindergarten. He heard Ms. Lane welcome the class of 2025.
That, Ms. Freeman said she explained to her son, is when he would graduate from high school.