Yolanda 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.