With a mixture of curiosity, anticipation and timidity, the two groups moved toward each other. At long last, pen pals who had been corresponding throughout the year met in person.
The greetings were a bit awkward. The fifth graders, who knew they would have to be the ones to break the ice, asked most of the questions. The kindergartners answered bashfully.
After a tour of Bells - which is a lot newer and much smaller than George Washington Elementary, the kindergartners said - the pen pals walked hand in hand from the Greentree Road school, by a swath of woods, and past the houses with landscaped yards that lead to JoAnn Demetriou's Sherry Court home, in the Old Wedgewood development.
In Demetriou's fenced back yard, balls, swings, a seesaw, a sandbox, toys and more food than could be consumed were waiting for them.
Surrounded by trees, the smell of pine and the chirping of birds, the youngsters let their shyness all but melt away. Wasting no time, they played games, ate barbecue lunches together, and made friendships that some vowed would continue.
Demetriou started the exchange when her daughter Marianne, now 13, was in kindergarten at Bells. It was a chance for the working mother to do an activity with her daughter's class and show Marianne and her classmates that Philadelphia children were not so different from them.
The program continued on and off for about five years, until the district moved all its kindergarten pupils into the Grenloch Terrace Early Childhood Center. Demetriou discontinued the program because it would have been hard to coordinate the event with the township children so far away from her home near Bells.
Demetriou said she hadn't realized how popular the program was with the South Philadelphia pupils until some of her kindergarten graduates returned to visit.
"The first thing they would say to me was, 'Mrs. Demetriou, remember when you took us to your house?' " she said. "They also told their brothers and sisters."
In reviving the exchange, Demetriou worked with her son Dan's fifth-grade class.
The meeting had been in the works since the kindergartners wrote letters detailing their interests and favorite books earlier in the school year. The fifth graders chose their pen pals on the basis of those letters. Another round of letters and photographs was exchanged before the two classes met.
Demetriou said she felt that the exchange had worked better this year than in the past, when kindergartners were matched with children their own age.
"It was better for me because when it was time to leave, the older kids actually cleaned up," she said. "I think it was better for the kids because there was more interaction. With the younger children, they kind of looked at each other. It took them longer to get acquainted. . . . The older kids took the initiative."
Anthony Russo, 11, said he and his pen pal, 6-year-old Kareem, had hit it off. Both like to draw and to play sports, and Anthony said he had a lot to teach Kareem.
"For them, we're like role models," Anthony said.
Kathy Parlante, 11, said she had picked Tierra, 6, because both are fans of ''Goldilocks and the Three Bears." As the two chatted, they munched on hot dogs and chips.
Tierra beamed when Kathy showed a visitor the personalized pink case that Tierra had bought her.
"She said she was going to put makeup in it," Tierra said proudly.
When the time arrived for the kindergartners to go back to George Washington Elementary, at Fifth and Federal Streets, their guests gave them helium balloons and pencils engraved with "Bells Elementary School, the best."
Many of the kindergartners did not want to leave their new friends, Demetriou said. (Of course, that didn't stop them from falling sound asleep on the bus trip home.)
Demetriou said her class would send their pen pals thank-you notes. As for lasting friendships, that remains to be seen, she said.