Backpacks embellished with camouflage, leopard print, dinosaurs, rainbows and daisies went the quickest.

The solid-colored bags were in high demand, too, as hundreds of Baltimore children and their families swarmed the booths offering free school supplies at the city’s annual back-to-school rally in front of City Hall on Saturday.

The event, hosted by Mayor Brandon Scott and staffed by a multitude of city agencies, aims to prepare students and their families for the academic year while connecting them with important resources and public assistance.

For kids, the event may have seemed like a utopia chock full of fun, with face painting, 3D pen coloring stations, silent yoga, dance contests, pickup basketball, cartoon mascots and bouncy houses. For the adults, the rally offered a central place ahead of the first day of school Aug. 28 to access free goods and services, such as fresh haircuts.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Layla, 6, smiles into a handheld mirror as she sees her unicorn face paint.
Layla, 6, smiles as she sees her unicorn face paint during the back-to-school rally. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

City agencies, nonprofits and educational partners waved families over to their booths with a smile and an offer to connect them with an array of free resources or assistance for broadband internet access, utility bills, health care and more.

The line of people waiting to collect backpacks was by far the longest, Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises remarked a little after noon. The school system’s top administrator stopped by a booth where families could snag a “feelings wheel” designed to help kids identify their emotions.

Santelises had just finished talking to some littles ones as they pet live turtles, so she was feeling good. That feeling was not specific enough, the workers handing out wheels told her. She consulted the wheel and settled on “joyous.”

The city’s annual back-to-school rally might seem like another fun summertime activity, but the coordination between multiple city agencies and the school system is important heading into the academic year, Santelises said.

“It’s critical for families to know we’re starting on time and setting good habits,” she said. “As a mom, I had to lay down the law and let my kids know that bedtimes are changing soon.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The city school system has partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Children & Family Success to make a big push to improve student attendance. Many Maryland school systems have grappled with chronic absenteeism since the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered some public school buildings around the region for more than a year.

Baltimore City and County schools in particular saw some of the lowest scores in the region on the first public schools report card since the pandemic — in part because of chronic absenteeism. Attendance was worth 15% of the district’s overall grade. Of the 15 points city schools could earn for attendance, elementary schools earned 1.5 points, middle schools earned 3 points and high schools earned 1 point.

CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools Sonja Brookins Santelises speaks.
Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises speaks during the rally. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Dr. Debra Brooks stepped to the front of the event’s main stage and looked out at the crowd of families who had gathered for a dance contest and a chance to win Ravens tickets if they could correctly guess where the mayor went to middle school (the answer is Roland Park Elementary/Middle School). The director of the Mayor’s Office of Children & Family Success took a deep breath.

“Who’s ready to go back to school?” she bellowed to the crowd. Dozens of high-pitched voices squealed “meeeeeeeee!”

This year, Brooks’ team is reimagining how it offers families support by sending representatives into the community to attend back-to-school nights and PTA or PTO meetings. The goal, Brooks said, is to get the whole family, not just students, ready for school. That might mean connecting households with critical supports for treating addiction, accessing clean water or assisting with energy bills —needs that can become barriers to education if not addressed.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“We know kids are going to be successful if they have these things,” Brooks said. “We want as much consistency as possible so kids can be in school every day.”

Beyond boosting educational supports in Baltimore City, Brooks hopes government-sponsored events like the rally send a message to the community that their hometown cares for them.

“This,” she said with a gesture toward the festivities, “is the village showing up.”

The free bookbags, lunch boxes, pencil cases and other supplies were a big help for Dorothy Smith. The 69-year-old brought her two grandsons to the rally to get them out of the house and away from screens.

“We need things like this,” she said. “People say they’re moving away, but I’m not leaving my hometown. Baltimore is a beautiful place with beautiful people.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The school Smith’s 9-year-old grandson, Devon Owens Jr., attends is several miles from the family’s home, making commutes a challenge and negatively impacting his attendance. The boy’s great-uncle helps with pickup and drop-off duties because Smith has trouble walking long distances. Other times, they take an Uber.

As Smith sat on the curb between City Hall and a bank of bounce houses, her older grandson, Carter Dodd, asked to check out the basketball hoops nearby.

Of course, Smith said, adding that she was planning afterward to swing by the booths offering resources to families.

“I want to see if something catches my eye,” she said.

Nyel, 9, and Skyla, 10, smile and hold up peace signs for a photo with the new backpacks they received.
Nyel, 9, and Skyla, 10, pose for a photo with the new backpacks they received. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

The event also attracted families from surrounding districts. Howard County father Ron Banks had never been to the city rally before but thought it might be something fun to do on Saturday afternoon with his daughters Skyla and Nyel Banks. They had missed another back-to-school event in their own district, so Banks promised his 10- and 9-year-old some time in the city and a fast food lunch.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“It’s hard to top Chick-fil-A, but this might,” Banks said after looking around at the colorful, balloon-speckled paradise packed into just a few city blocks.

The Banks family waited patiently in line to pick out free backpacks — a rainbow one for Skyla and a teal one with flowers for Nyel. Both of them slipped their arms through the not-yet-tightened straps and allowed the bags to drop behind their knees.

Baltimore City mom Vanessa Davis was impressed with the number of services offered at the rally, particularly the immunization site and other physical and mental health-centered opportunities. Her 7-year-old twins, Oziah and Alayshia Davis, lost their father in 2021, so she said she knows how important it is for families to have access to mental health support.

But it was another opportunity advertised at the rally, dance classes, that jumped out to Davis on Saturday. Alayshia loves to move, and Davis had been meaning to sign her up for dance this fall.

“Everyone should have what they need,” she said.

Baltimore Banner reporter Kristen Griffith contributed to this article.

More From The Banner