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Boosting Parent Engagement Before School Starts

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Dozens of teams will take to the streets of New Haven, Conn., over the next week to greet kindergarteners and welcome their parents to the public school system.

Jump starting parent engagement before the first day of school involves a get-out-the-volunteer effort that will put up to 100 two-person teams in neighborhoods to raise awareness—and excitement—about starting school.

The first so-called "Kindergarten Canvass" is the brainchild of a group of civic-minded leaders in New Haven, representing the schools, the city, and non-profits.

The teams, comprised of one school employee and one volunteer community member, will knock on the door of the 1,500 registered kindergarteners to make sure parents have their questions answered about school and to ensure that school employees invite parents to participate once their children begin attending.

New Haven is a city that has seen the challenges of the Northeast's manufacturing decline, with high unemployment in some areas and a difficult dropout rate. In 2009, the School Change initiative was launched in New Haven, with the following goals:

  • Raising test scores to at least the state average, eliminating the achievement gap;

  • Cutting the high school dropout rate in half;

  • Ensuring every student is academically prepared and financially able to attend, succeed in and graduate from college.

"One of the pieces to that is parent engagement. We've come up with solid strategies for change, but the parent-engagement piece is such a tough nut to crack. We've tried a bunch of different things but nothing stuck," said Laoise King, vice president of education initiatives at United Way of Greater New Haven.

"In talking with the superintendent, we wanted to do something different. One of the issues in trying to engage parents is that it's hard to get them to really feel they're partners with the school district when they're having trouble navigating the system," said King.

To eliminate any perceived barriers, the educational-planning team came up with the idea of visiting parents in their homes, often with a volunteer who lives near that parent and can become a contact for how to navigate the system.

Trainings have been held to make sure canvassers know how to help parents, and a form has been created—in triplicate—so there's accountability for following up with any unanswered questions parents have.

The volunteer visitors will also deliver a message about how parents can help children in school using a research-informed initiative called "The ART of School Success." It emphasizes the importance of:

Attendance: Parents should send their children to school every day.
Reading: Parents are encouraged to read to their child for 20 minutes each day.
Time: Parents should spend time talking to their child daily.

New Haven officials believe this simple message can have a major impact.

"When we launched our School Change initiative two and a half years ago, we knew that widespread parent engagement would be critical to its success. Since then, we've made strides in improving school culture, raising the bar for academic achievement and strengthening instruction in the classroom," said New Haven Superintendent of Schools Dr. Reginald Mayo.

"This year we bring our focus back to parents. With our Kindergarten Canvass, we directly engage parents and bring them into the process at the very start of their child's educational journey. Then we follow up with Parent University in the fall, more outreach around New Haven Promise and continued engagement efforts throughout the year. The message to parents is: 'You are a part of this team.' I think parents will start to buy in to that message and will want to play a bigger role."

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