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For love of country

At Northwest Elementary, "we want our students to realize the United States is the greatest country in the world," the principal says. "We want them to understand it's a privilege to grow up here."

Patriotic music blares from loudspeakers as the last students arrive at Northwest Elementary School.

Inside, they pass walls covered with depictions of the Stars and Stripes, and adults are clad in red, white and blue. In one meeting room, Norman Rockwell prints extol American virtue. On another wall, a train of bright-eyed patriots march behind a banner that says, "Proud to Be American."

This school is not afraid to wave the flag.

Since the mid-1990s, administrators and teachers have emphasized patriotism not only to honor the country but to promote citizenship and values at Northwest. Call it old-fashioned, but they believe the steady mix of programs and classwork works.

"Part of the public school curriculum is to create good citizens for the United States," principal Mark Dafeldecker said. "We want our students to realize the United States is the greatest country in the world. We want them to understand it's a privilege to grow up here. We want to build a sense of honor in the military because they've done so much for us.

"It's a forgotten part of the curriculum," he said.

Every November the school holds a big Veterans Day ceremony, culminating a monthlong study of the different military branches. Students gather around the flagpole with veterans and active service members, soaking up love of country. Two generals and a team of parachuting soldiers attended this year's event.

Last month students sent hundreds of Valentine's Day notes to veterans and U.S. soldiers serving in Kosovo. Fourth-grade teacher Tammy Steele reads each response to the students.

Northwest likes to reinforce the message throughout the year. Hence "Patriotic Wednesday." Inspirational music is dusted off and students are strongly encouraged to wear some combination of the flag's colors, Dafeldecker said.

Peer pressure and constant reminders haven't turned everyone into a walking American flag. But from Dafeldecker, who wore a navy blue suit with an American flag tie, to the secretaries decked out in patriotic colors and pins, there are plenty of followers.

One of the highlights is the ringing of the school's freedom bell. Two students are chosen for the honor. On this day, once the school announcements were over _ which included a history lesson on Sally Ride, the first American woman in space _ Dafeldecker led first-grader Kevin Smith and fourth-grader Chelsea Slater to the memorial in front of the school.

He placed their little hands on the pull string and told them to "Tug. Keep going. Nice and loud."

The ringing filled the air.

"Certainly all schools do their best to promote citizenship," said guidance counselor Johnna Roussos, a former Army schoolteacher whose husband is a lieutenant colonel at MacDill Air Force base. "I think we go way beyond that."

White, 6, earned the honor for purchasing a Northwest Elementary T-shirt _ with an eagle and a flag on it _ for a classmate.

Slater, an outgoing 9-year-old, told her teacher she wanted to ring the bell. While her outfit _ a yellow shirt and jeans _ was a bit off target, she knew exactly why she was there.

"Let freedom ring," she said.