VIDEO: Cultures on parade at Fort Vancouver

1,500 third-graders from Vancouver, Evergreen schools celebrate their heritage

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter

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Wearing an elaborate gold sarong with a sash, Gabi Koc, 8, a third-grader at Sifton Elementary School, celebrated her Laotian heritage Friday morning as she walked along Officers Row.

Gabi was one of about 1,500 third-graders from the Vancouver and Evergreen school districts who represented a melting pot of cultures in the 11th annual Children's Cultural Parade at the Fort Vancouver National Site.

The students recently completed a project researching their family's heritage by interviewing parents and grandparents, doing

online research and then writing research papers and designing posters and dioramas, and creating traditional costumes. Friday's parade was the culmination of the project.

Wearing costumes and carrying flags and dioramas, the third-graders paraded through the park. Many boys and girls wore traditional costumes. Two boys wore Scottish kilts. A girl representing Italy wore a paper model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa on her head. Students from Harmony Elementary School carried a banner that read: "Many cultures, one community." Minnehaha students waved signs reading: "We are all part of the bigger puzzle."

Marching bands from Columbia River High School, Cascade Middle School and the drum corps from Hough Elementary School provided a cadence to keep everyone in step. J-ROTC cadets from Prairie High School kept the kids walking as they led the students in cheers.

Gabi's traditional costume was sewn by her grandmother, Vilath Phimvongsa, who immigrated to the U.S. from Laos in 1979.

"I asked her to make my dress," Gabi said.

Gabi's teacher, Karen Alexander, has been teaching the cultural heritage lesson and bringing her students to the parade for all 11 years.

"We're one of the originals since it started," Alexander said. "This year, my students sang Spanish and Russian songs during the parade."

The night before the parade, Sifton Elementary School students, families and teachers gathered for an international family night to view the students' projects and to share a potluck of traditional dishes.

The undulating line of children snaked down into the reconstructed Fort Vancouver. As the children settled onto the grass, siblings Alberta, Boaz and Caleb Hardy, National Park Service volunteers dressed in 19th-century costumes, played old-time fiddle music.

"Welcome! Every year this event gets better because of you," Tracy Fortmann, superintendent of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, told the sea of children. "Tying this national park into your educational programs is so important."

About two dozen school buses transported students to the parade. Gary Laster, an Evergreen district bus driver, drove the Cascade Middle School band, including his grandson, Brandon Brown, who plays baritone.

Gabi and her father, Ty Koc, followed teacher Alexander and her classmates through the fort gate and back to their waiting bus.

"I never knew that much about Laos," Gabi wrote in her research report. "It was sort of hard, but I get it now. Now I know what it's like."

Susan Parrish: 360-735-4515; http://twitter.com/Col_Schools;susan.parrish@columbian.com