For the students of Rock View Elementary School in Kensington, the lessons learned this semester about the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision to desegregate public schools have come through loud and clear.
"Remember, Thurgood Marshall said it's not equal unless it's the same thing at the same time at the same place," a group of third-graders announced this week during a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education.
The ceremony, which included a breakfast for the county Board of Education and other dignitaries, echoed the lessons taught throughout the county's 191 schools this school year as part of "The Countdown to Brown," the first phase of the school system's two-phase observance of the anniversary.
The first phase culminates Monday, the anniversary of the court decision, when the school system, in collaboration with the American Film Institute, presents "an evening of remembrance and exploration through film and discussion" at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring.
Producer and director George Stevens Jr. is expected to lead a discussion using clips from his Emmy-winning 1991 television miniseries "Separate but Equal," which was based on the ruling. Other highlights include the presentation of historical monologues by eighth-graders from Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring and a panel discussion by local leaders on what's being done to fulfill the promise of Brown v. Board of Education.
Tuesday will mark the start of "Brown and Beyond," the second phase of the school system's observance, which will focus on changes that the district and the community can make while working toward the goal of equal access in education, according to school officials.
The two-part observance was the idea of the school board, which called last fall for all schools to participate in activities and events to commemorate the anniversary of the Brown decision, the catalyst for wide-ranging changes affecting equal opportunity and racial integration.
Each school stepped up to the task, planning activities and events ranging from making timelines of key dates, to holding assemblies, performances and essay contests, to creating artwork and detailed videos that include interviews with people who attended county schools when they were desegregated.
"It's been an impressive turnout that teachers have taken the time to commemorate," said Martin Creel, the supervisor of social studies for the school system, who provided sample activities to teachers. "It really comes down to schools to make the students focus on the decision."
Gregory Bell, director of diversity initiatives for the schools and manager of the observance project, compiled a list of the hundreds of activities and events that schools held. The observance "allows for the opportunity to learn whether you were pre-Brown, during Brown or after Brown," he said. "It's an opportunity for students and adults to allow for learning to take place, reflection to take place and living to take place."
At Rock View, for example, kindergartners were read stories about differences between people while first-graders participated in an activity that explored how it feels to be treated differently. For the activity, some children wore white shirts and others wore blue; the students with white shirts weren't allowed to play with certain toys or do as much as the blue-shirted children, said Principal Patsy Roberson.
All of the lessons on segregation taught in grades 1 through 5 had an impact, she said.
"I saw a lot of emotion with the children. They didn't like it. I told them, 'It was all right to cry -- we corrected it. If it weren't for Brown, Mrs. Roberson wouldn't be here,' " said Roberson, who is African American.
Eric Davis, principal of Maryvale Elementary School in Rockville, said he noticed a growing awareness of the unfairness of segregation in the writing assignments handed in by students at his highly diverse school of 670 students.
"In a lot of the poems, they really feel how unfair it was that it hasn't always been like this," he said. "They can't imagine someone judging someone else based on the color of skin, just because of the way things are now."
In addition to the writing, each class helped create bulletin boards displayed outside classrooms commemorating the Brown decision. An International Night held last week also highlighted the importance of the decision, Davis said.
"We couldn't have had International Night without Brown v. Board of Education," he said.
In middle schools and high schools, students similarly focused their thoughts in such activities as essay contests, assemblies with guest speakers and art projects. In February, 55 students from Albert Einstein and Springbrook high schools in Silver Spring attended a conference at Howard University on the legacy of the court decision.
As part of a week-long commemoration, students at North Bethesda Middle School wrote essays discussing how the ruling changed American schools and society today.
Without the ruling, eighth-grader Jillian Schulz wrote, students would not have the opportunity to learn from others of different cultures, expanding their world views.
"For example, Asians, Spanish, Arab and French people would be discriminated against," she wrote. "In classes today, there are students from different parts of the world that help other students who don't understand something about a topic. Because of that, we, as students are able to learn more and expand our knowledge."
At Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, the student-run Human Relations Council produced a video history of the impact of the court decision that included students playing the roles of historical figures. Designed for grades 3 and above, the eight-minute video involved about 25 students.
"It was student produced, student directed and student filmed," said Russ Woodford, a guidance counselor and chairman of the school's Human Relations Committee who supervised the student production. "Kids who hadn't engaged in much of anything in school bought into it heart and soul."
Eastern Middle School collaborated with Hood College in Frederick on a variety of activities, including lectures by college officials; writing contests; an interactive, living timeline of historical events; and skits and performances of slave songs and period jazz pieces. A large group of students traveled to Hood to perform and participate in a March conference on the Brown decision.
"All in all, we invested months in preparation and fulfillment of the project, but it was so meaningful," Principal Charlotte Boucher said. "We had such intense participation that I felt we did not lose one kid."