PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — Students at Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Learning Center in Peoria are celebrating Hispanic culture with caterpillars and costumes.

On Friday, hundreds of students marched in a parade wearing traditional costumes or paper ponchos and shaking maracas to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.

Jeanelle Valdovinos, a bilingual preschool teacher at Valeska Hinton, said the parade is a way to promote cultural awareness within the community.

“With the growing population of Hispanics and Latinos here in Peoria, I feel like it’s nice to share our celebrations and cultural festivities with others,” she said.

Valdovinos got the idea for the parade from seeing similar parades in Chicago as a child. Now it’s the second year, she said this year’s turnout was even bigger.

“We had many more classrooms participate.  So overall in the school, we have about 550 students who participated either by marching in the parade or being a spectator… It was nice to see the crowds, and some parents joined us in marching around the schools. So that was very exciting to see how more parents participated and were excited to come join us this year,” she said.

The sixth annual Monarch Butterfly Release kicked off the parade. Led by preschool teacher Mary Keltner-King, the students raised 50 caterpillars to grow into monarch butterflies, then released them to journey to Mexico for the winter.

“We believe in project-based play-based learning… Our wonderful staff spends time adapting resources and materials that are provided through kits to make sure that their children have the opportunity to learn about the monarch’s life cycle. It’s importance in our world and how we help to conserve its species,” said King.

King said the butterfly release also helps educators, parents and families learn new things.

“Whether it was the time it took for a caterpillar to form a chrysalis and watch it go from the shape of a caterpillar into a small green chrysalis, or watching their first butterfly hatchery and spread its wings and prepare to take flight,” she said.

Students have released about 600 monarch butterflies in the past six years, King said. They partner with the Peoria Public Schools Foundation and Central Illinois Monarch Task Force to put on the event every year.