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Raleigh school welcomes spring with Holi celebration

Third-graders Miyah Cummings, 9, and Leeanne Pacheco, 9, cover one another in colored powder during a Holi celebration at Washington Elementary School in Raleigh on Tuesday.
Third-graders Miyah Cummings, 9, and Leeanne Pacheco, 9, cover one another in colored powder during a Holi celebration at Washington Elementary School in Raleigh on Tuesday. sbarr@newsobserver.com

No one at Washington Elementary School could resist the small cups of colorful powder that beckoned from a table in the school’s cafeteria.

Some people dabbed a line or two of red or yellow onto their forehead or blue or green onto their cheeks, while others smeared colors all the way down their necks and across the fronts of their shirts.

Though their techniques varied, they all were united in their desire to welcome spring in a riot of color as they celebrated the Hindu festival of Holi.

Students, parents and teachers of various religious traditions and ethnic backgrounds embraced the holiday’s traditions through the colored powder.

Second-grader Nidhi Patel, 8, grinned as she dabbed a line of red into teacher Dawn Swartz’s hairline. Nidhi said she enjoyed sharing the festival with her school friends and teachers.

“I liked when we threw the color because that’s what I usually do on Holi with my family,” she said.

The holiday is celebrated in India, where customs differ by region, and has spread to countries all over the world. Washington Elementary took the holiday as its theme during an evening Indian cultural program on Tuesday.

The school, home to a gifted and talented magnet program, is among the area’s most diverse. About a third of the school’s students are Indian-American, with most entering the school through the magnet program, said principal Bob Grant.

Grant said families are drawn to the school by word-of-mouth recommendations about its academics, electives and arts programming. Many also like the pathway students will follow through the school system if they attend Washington, with many attending Ligon or Carnage for middle school and Enloe for high school, he said.

Each magnet school also has a “draw area” that sets out which schools families within the area can apply to. Washington’s includes parts of western Wake, where the Indian-American population is larger than in other parts of the county.

“Tonight is a way of learning about culture but also celebrating and really honoring it,” Grant said as he waited in line for a home-cooked buffet of samosas, curries and other Indian dishes.

Families cooked all of the food, preparing the meals several weeks in a row as snow days forced organizers to reschedule the event.

The wait was worth it, said participants, who watched students perform traditional songs and Bollywood-inspired dances and sing the Indian national anthem.

Kuntal Gandhi, a Washington parent, finished the evening with a sprinkling of every colored powder at the table across his gray dress shirt.

He said he was thrilled with the turnout, and the willingness of families, teachers and staff who weren’t familiar with Holi to embrace its traditions.

“It’s a festival of colors and having all the people here – that makes Holi,” he said.

Julie von Haefen, president of the PTA, said the school was able to host the event after winning a grant from the National PTA for “Take Your Family to School Week.” This year, the week focused on how to support student success, including promoting cultural awareness.

Washington was one of only 50 schools across the country to win the grant. The school also hosted an event where parents who are Spanish speakers could eat dinner and listen to a speaker about how best to support their children in school when English is not their first language.

Von Haefen said the school’s diversity is an asset, one she hopes will be celebrated in more culturally themed events.

“I think that diversity is part of why so many families come here,” she said.

Barr: 919-836-4952;

Twitter: @barrmsarah

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