News media images of children going back to school convey joyful reunions and lots of excitement, children with new shoes and backpacks skipping happily all the way.
The reality is somewhat more complex. My two grandchildren started school this year, in kindergarten and preschool. Both were so excited and keyed up that they spent most of the night in their parents’ bed. The kindergartner woke up and said, “Mama, I don’t feel so good, I have a tummy ache, I can’t go to school today…”
To school, of course, he went, with his mom and grandma by his side. I remembered how I felt when I started school each year, having vibrated about a foot above the bed all night long, anxious about everything — Would the kids like me? Would my teacher be mean? Would I understand the math? Would I be able to find the bathroom?
P.S. 39 in Brooklyn, with its deliciously diverse mix of students, was ready for us. The schoolyard was teeming with children and families waiting for the doors to open. “I’m even more nervous than my kids are,” many parents admitted.
Not to worry! The kindergarten teachers came out the side door beaming, holding big signs with their names and class numbers. The teachers worked the crowd like political candidates, smiling, greeting children, shaking hands with parents, and conveying warmth and confidence.
Then we were invited into the classroom, to see where the children would be spending so much time over the next ten months. Place cards with each child’s name were set out on the tables. My grandson settled in happily, coloring his name on the place card. His best friend sat across the table. Parents could see how the room was set up for learning — a classroom library, bins of learning games, space for a story circle. This is going to be a great year.
Parents are at ease in this school. Every Friday, teachers set aside time to talk with parents; family events are scheduled throughout the year. Welcoming families, creating a nurturing and safe environment for children, making learning fun, being open and inclusive, are part of the school’s culture. Better yet, the school has a long tradition of close collaboration with its community.
Every school across the country should be like this! Regrettably, many are still struggling to grasp the critical importance of actively engaging families.
Let’s remember that it is not just the children who enroll in a school, it is the whole family. It is not enough to send home flyers for a few events a year. We must reach out, we must make everyone feel welcome and valued, we must take time to connect and build personal relationships with every single child’s family. That creates the trust and sense of partnership so needed for children to thrive.
Every January 1st, we celebrate New Year’s Day. But the real New Year begins with the start of school.
Anne Henderson – Senior Fellow, Community Involvement Program, Annenberg Institute for School Reform; Vice Chair, NAFSCE Board of Directors