Some are now in college, some in high school but they came back, many of them with their mothers and fathers.
They came to thank Mary Alice Jackson, who for 13 years, has been one of the most intimidating, challenging and loved teachers at Murch Elementary School as she instilled in her students a respect for their individual abilities.
Jackson is retiring this June and Sunday's retirement party on the school lawn in upper Northwest was the community's tribute to a local hero. The banner across the front of the school said, "Mrs. Jackson, you mean the world to us." Many of the well-wishers wore buttons saying, "You're No. 1" and "Super J."
Some gave her presents, others gave her flowers and others just invited her to visit them.
"The kids feel so secure with her," said Sue Smith, a Murch parent. "With all the bad press about the public schools . . . there are still some people in this school system that make it work."
Jackson, 60, was overwhelmed with the outpouring. "Never in my wildest dreams would I think a little old lady from Alabama would find myself in a place getting a tribute for something I get paid to do and that I love," she told the crowd of 200 that lavished her with songs and poems during a short program.
When Jackson came to the school, at 36th and Ellicott streets in 1972 she was one nine black teachers at a predominantly white school in a community where many parents struggle with whether to send their children to public or private school.
Today two-thirds of the teachers on the 21-member faculty are black and the school's enrollment of 348 students, while still predominantly white, includes children from 36 nations.
Throughout the day Jackson's classroom is filled with children from kindergarten to sixth grade who are in the school's program for the gifted and talented.
"I specialize in teaching children to write," said Jackson. "In addition, I think my strong point is motivation, motivating children to be themselves so that they aren't pressured by their peers. I tell them they must be strong individuals and believe in themselves."
Jackson, who was raised by an aunt in Perry, Fla., credits her family and her work at Florida Memorial College, where she received her undergraduate degree, with producing her style of teaching.
Her college professors "taught us on the 'unit method' of study," she said. "For example, if you're studying New York City, you study, the art, the geography, the history . . . . we enhanced the unit with all the other disciplines and that's basically the way I teach."
Her classroom reflects her teaching methods. The room is cluttered with student projects ranging from half-finished reptile sculptures to completed research projects on the sonnet and multidisciplinary studies of cities.
"My room is a work room," Jackson said, adding that writing is the basis for all the work that happens there.
"I am definitely for basics, but I think every basic skill should be extended," said Jackson, who also holds a masters degree in language arts. "Therefore, you're not getting this resistance to learning.
"It doesn't help to teach a skill and a child doesn't know what to do with it," she continued. "Children should go beyond the mediocre when they're capable. I do a lot of creative work. Just to say the students should have creative activities is crazy, so, I tie in the two."
Murch principal Mary Gill said of Jackson, "I have taught over 20 years and she's the most creative teacher I've ever met. She is constantly thinking. You can look at her and put a light bulb right over her head. She brings out every child in the class as an individual."
As one of the early black teachers placed in the predominantly white schools located west of Rock Creek Park, Jackson said she has fought to increase the number of black children in these schools.
During her seven years at Oyster Elementary during the sixties and seventies, she said she was "in the fight" to integrate the school. "I wanted them to know that we didn't grow horns on our heads, that blackness wasn't a disease," Jackson said."
But now, she said, "I've seen a great change in that the acceptance of black students is overwhelming. Our school is a mini United Nations. We are a family."
Her own relationship with her students, both at Oyster and Murch has been a durable one. "They come back year after year. It's all based on the fact that I treated them as human beings. I respected them, but I didn't lose any respect in doing so. They've given to me and I've tried to give it back," she said.
The Jackson alumni at the party agreed. Eric Dellums, son of Rep. Ronald Dellums, (D-Calif.), came Sunday "to give back" to his former teacher. Dellums, a senior at Brown University, said, "The woman has been such an inspiration. I personally think she's the best instructor I've ever had.
"I just found the envelope my sixth grade report card came in," he said. "She wrote on it: 'I'll see you on the stage no later than 1986.' I just completed my first film and I came here to tell her. She left an indelible mark on me."