A New Principal Comes Knocking

CORA LEWIS PHOTOYolanda Jones-Generette and Yazmin James are both starting a new school next week—the same school. They got to know each other early, bonding over bears, after Jones-Generette knocked on the door.

Jones-Generette is the new principal of Lincoln-Bassett School in Newhavllville. Yazmin, who’s 5, is entering kindergarten there.

“My favorite book is Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” James told her new principal-to-be.

Jones Generette came bearing gifts. She handed the girl a copy of the bilingual children’s book Bear at Work, aka Oso en el Trabajo. The two read the title together on the steps to James’s home.

The encounter took place as part of the second year of New Haven’s kindergarten “canvass”—a volunteer effort by the city, school district, United Way and New Haven Promise to help families prepare their youngest students to begin the long road to succeeding in school and making it to college. Last year, the action reached more than 1,000 households.

On Saturday, the first day of the campaign, 93 volunteers knocked on 419 doors and made contact with 163 families, according to schools spokeswoman Abbe Smith, with nearly all “turfs” reporting. The effort included 44 teachers, principals, and public school staff.

Yolanda Jones-Generette and Florence Caldwell formed one team of door-knockers. They spent the day walking the Newhallville neighborhood.

The teams delivered a message: Students should attend school, read, and spend family time talking together every day. As part of the Boost! and Parent University programs, the canvass aimed to stress for parents the critical value of engagement with their kids from a young age.

“Remember—you’re not selling anything,” said Mayor John DeStefano, who was present at East Rock School to help rally the canvassers before they set out. “These parents will be happy to see you.” This year, the canvass was arranged by school, rather than by designating each team a neighborhood, which might include students from different schools. That means that teachers and principals met students with whom they will be spending the next years, face to face – instead of a mixed assortment of the city’s children and parents.

Jones-Generette is taking the helm of Lincoln-Bassett, a neighborhood school, after acting as assistant principal at Barnard for the past four years. Born and raised in New Haven, a product of its public schools system, Generette spent four years teaching sixth grade at Fair Haven, five years teaching fourth grade at Helene Grant, and a year teaching grades 3 and 4 at Wexler Grant. From 2007 to 2008, she was a literacy coach at Lincoln-Bassett, where she’ll now return as principal.

“This is a thrill,” she said, parking in the principal’s spot at Lincoln-Bassett for the first time, as she prepared to go out and meet families on the surrounding streets.

Caldwell, who met Generette back in 2007, introduced herself as a parent advocate. She has worked for the Board of Education for 27 years, many of them in the custodial system. She has three daughters, all of whom attended Lincoln-Bassett, and six grandchildren, four of whom also went through the school.

“I talk to some parents who say, ‘I spend all day with my kids.’ I always ask them, ‘But do you talk to them? Do you ask them how their day was?’ Five minutes of conversation and quality time is better than 24 hours of empty time,” said Caldwell.

Setting out with information packets and maps marked with the locations of the families of new kindergarteners, Caldwell and Jones-Generette ended up making contact with many other members of the community not on their clipboards as well.

Caldwell called out to students riding their bikes on the sidewalk; she recognized them from school. They hollered greetings back to “Miss Flo,” as she was known to schoolteachers and kids. Stopping to admire a community garden, Jones-Generette asked what neighbors were growing. “Collared greens, vegetables. I have one cabbage – that’s a miracle,” the chief gardener told her.

“We’re going to have an potluck at the school. You bring it by,” said Jones-Generette, enlisting the miracle grower in her cause to revitalize the school.

Stopping outside one address on their route, Generette and Caldwell found the door locked and covered with graffiti. Undeterred by the obstacle—and the wolf-like dog that began to howl through a chain-link fence—the pair walked around back and shouted greetings until faces appeared in windows.

The family of the new kindergartener listed wasn’t home. The team gave books to another set of future students.

Joseph Martinez, 8, who will be a first-grader at Lincoln-Bassett, read Oso en el Trabajo to his cousin, Prince Gonzalez, 2, while their parents watched.

The Gonzalezes and Martinezes had been drying hot chili peppers in their backyard to make mole, a traditional Mexican dish; Jones-Generette was sure to tell them about the upcoming potluck before she left. Caldwell learned the name of the dog – Tony—and his breed—Siberian husky – before saying her goodbyes as well. Everyone parted friends.

There will be two additional canvasses on Wednesday, Aug. 21, from 4:30 to 7 p.m.; and Thursday, Aug. 22 from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Sessions convene at East Rock School at 133 Nash St.; it’s not too late to volunteer.

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posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on August 20, 2013  11:06am

What an OUTSTANDING idea, Principals showing up BEFORE the kids “Show Out” (a term that means “misbehave” for the uninitiated) in school.

I’m glad (now) for teachers who showed up at my house to talk to my parents, but back in the day when the teacher, or ANY school official, showed up at your house, you were NOT going to have a good day…and perhaps not a good week or two.

Reconnecting the neighborhood school with the community is just one step in reconnecting the community with itself - “Putting the Neighbor Back in the Hood” - (a ministry we are developing at Immanuel Baptist Church) but it’s an important aspect, indeed.

But, here’s a thought: I wonder how many surbubanites will desire to continue working in schools with significant urban populations if visiting the homes of their students became a REQUIREMENT of their employment?

The Rev. Samuel T. Ross-Lee
Immanuel Baptist Church

posted by: Teachergal on August 20, 2013  11:28am

Kudos Yolanda…you are exhibiting leadership qualities that are conducive to making parents comfortable with the educational process. Many of the parents you are serving have had poor experiences with the educational process and what you are doing is bridging that gap.  I commend you and wish you success in your new position at Lincoln-Bassett. If you’re looking for a program to instill character development, cooperation, and teamwork check out Responsive Classroom. This program offers staff development training but if resources do not allow for that they have wonderful books on building a strong, caring, school community. Good luck to you this year!

posted by: Elizabethaiken on August 20, 2013  1:00pm

Ms Jones-Generette sounds as if she will be an awesome principal.This is great news for the children attending her school. I love this article.

posted by: Razzie on August 20, 2013  3:06pm

I commend Principal Jones-Generette as a shining example of how NHPS Principals should carry out the awesome responsibility of educating our children. ALL of our Principals should take heed.

posted by: SSSS on August 20, 2013  3:52pm

Rev. Ross Lee,

I can’t tell if your question was rhetorical or genuine.  But having been in many schools with significant urban populations, I can say definitively that it can take a significant amount of fortitude for that work.  So I’m not sure why the addition of home visits would suddenly deter incumbent teachers at urban schools who happen to live in the suburbs, and who presumably already have this fortitude.

posted by: Tom Burns on August 21, 2013  12:46am

Yolanda is a wonderful professional woman—all these initiatives in New Haven make it a special place—nowhere else is this happening—I am so proud of the volunteers and thank them for their work—Dr. Samuel Ross Lee—the suburbanites that work here make home visits all the time—-I don’t live in New Haven but I can guarantee you that no teacher made more home visits than I—that was the most enjoyable part of my job—especially on Saturdays and Sundays—just to hang out and on many occasions to supply certain families with things that they needed—teachers do GOD’s work everyday and have never asked for anything in return—we march to a different drum—a selfless drum—hope you are doing the same—-lets go make some home visits together sometime—bring a couple hundred bucks so we can share our wealth with the less fortunate—call me 860-227-6668—believe me—it is rewarding—can’t wait to meet you—we can split the cost of the UHaul—Tom

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on August 21, 2013  8:06am

Interesting how the NHI can publish a response to my comment sent @ 1:46am, THIS morning, but can’t manage to publish my response to Mr./Ms. SSSS sent yesterday afternoon.

Mr. Burns, your claim to ultimate altruism is interesting, but, of course, not true.  While the teaching profession might very well be underpaid, that does not mean that you ask for (or get) nothing in return for what you claim is “selfless” service.

Whether it’s a paycheck, power, prestige, status, or even the desire to publically extol the virtures of your selflessness, all of us get SOMETHING for the service we do, even when our service claims are overblown.

Your claim of many home visits, to be sure,  does not answer the question I raised in my original post, or provide the needed facts to do so.  I’m STILL wondering how a requirement for teachers to visit students at home would be received by teachers who are not regular visitors to urban neighborhoods. Nice try though.

P.S. I neither possess nor claim a doctorate degree. So, no “Dr.” is appropriate before my name.  And the last name is Ross(hypen)Lee. Looks like this:
“Ross-Lee”.  For all of his pretension to being concerned about the “tone” of commenters here, Bass should recognize that perhaps the most disrepectful thing that a person can do is to refuse to call someone what they call themselves.  Maybe his censorship predilections should be brought to bear on those post that inaccurately address the commenters here.

posted by: Razzie on August 21, 2013  12:40pm

@ Samuel T. Ross-Lee

Your comment is well appreciated and timely. I also have nostalgic feelings for the “good old days” when I was back in grammar school. But in reflecting on your post, it struck me that I can’t quite tell who fits your notion of the “suburbanite” teacher coming to work in New Haven, who would benefit most from a NHPS requirement that they make home visits to their students. Does this label include teachers living in Hamden and West Haven? Or regions further out? How about Meridan, Hartford or Bridgeport?

Obviously, the cities named have urban characteristics similar the New Haven, and one could question the utility of requiring home visits as a means of acquainting those teachers with empathy for their students’ real world conditions.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on August 21, 2013  1:53pm

@ Razzie

The suburbanite to which I refer would be those teachers who do not live in the urban communities from which their students come.  Hence, it is not about WHERE they live; it’s about where they do not.

posted by: Razzie on August 22, 2013  10:30am

@ Samuel T. Ross-Lee

Your characterization of the term results in a rather uncommon definition of “suburbanite” that would include teachers who live and grew up in areas like Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem, etc. Probably not the intended result, however there is merit in having all teachers do home visits to bring them closer to their children’s learning environment.