Moms and dads, alders, social-service providers and neighborhood fixtures will be walking through eight schools over the coming months, giving school principals and teachers a lesson on how to make them feel welcome.
The state-funded initiative will be rolling out at eight different schools, from nearly every corner of the city. All of their principals volunteered, saying it would enhance the work they’re already doing to keep families involved, said Danny Diaz, the district’s parent engagement coordinator.
On the list, there’s two neighborhood schools, Fair Haven and Nathan Hale; three magnet schools, Bishop Woods, Edgewood and John S. Martinez; and three inter-district magnet schools, ESUMS, Barnard and L.W. Beecher.
“As part of parent engagement, we want everyone to feel comfortable walking into schools,” Diaz said. “They need to feel welcome.”
Last year, the eight principals went to a training sponsored by the Connecticut State Department and Capitol Region Education Council about how to make parents feel included. They shared what they’d learned with their staff and talked about what more they could do. Now, they’re inviting the community in to give them even more feedback.
They’ll be split up into groups to focus on just one area, like the entrances or the hallways, Diaz said. They’ll point out what they’d like to see and then put it together in a report for the staff.
Diaz said that the principals are making a special effort to include families with higher needs, like a language barrier or a physical disability, to hear about any shortcomings. They’re also trying to make sure all racial groups are represented.
“Does the school reflect, in the walls, the community that it serves? Do kids feel comfortable?” Diaz said. “It’s psychological. Perception and reality could be two different things.”
These days, more parents are logging in online to check how their child is doing, rather than walking into a school, Diaz said. They view grades in Power Schools, and they check Parent Link messages in their email inbox or text messages, he said.
“They’re bringing in a completely different way to be engaged,” he said. “It’s not just going to a meeting. It’s about receiving messages and responding, about telling them thank you for communicating, about constantly hearing feedback and giving feedback.”
But that makes it all the more important that the school feels inviting for the few parents actually make it into their kid’s classroom, Diaz said. About three-quarters of parents come to orientation and report-card nights, so that’s the school’s one big chance to feel right, he explained.
“It’s about improving how welcoming our school is, in terms of race, class and equity,” said Tara Cass, the principal at Nathan Hale, the first school to bring parents on walk-throughs. “We generally have a positive school climate, and we have large parent involvement. But this is about reaching out specifically to anyone who feels critical about the school to problem-solve. We want to hear feedback to improve.”
Nathan Hale, which is located in the East Shore, has a growing population of Hispanic families, so Cass said she wants to pay particularly close attention to how to meet their translation needs.
District-wide, most schools are adjusting to keep up with the district’s changing demographics, especially by making sure that more notes go home in both English and Spanish, Diaz said. But the Welcoming Schools initiative will help these eight schools really figure out what their families need, he added.
Take English language learners, Diaz said. It’s often assumed that they’re usually speaking Spanish at home, but families might be conversing in French, Arabic or Chinese, among dozens of foreign languages. A simple poster might help those other households feel seen, he said.
“They might not see those things that they relate to,” he said. “It’s like saying, ‘Bonjour,’ in France. It shows that whole cultural competency.”
Experts also point out that it’s not just a matter of making sure that other languages are spoken; administrators also need to cut the jargon that doesn’t translate anyway, said David Plank, a researcher at Stanford University. For instance, if messages home refer to “school climate,” parents might think the air-conditioning system is out, he said. Or if they talk about the concept of “grit,” they might think that their kid is dirty, he added.
After this first run, Diaz is hoping that the state will support taking the Welcoming Schools initiative throughout New Haven. He said that even when schools are right next to each other, like Clemente and Hill Central, for instance, their cultures can be totally different and could benefit from hearing from their own parents.
“I think every school in Connecticut should do it,” Diaz said. “Get the input from the people that we serve. And very so many years, revisit it because it changes. What Fair Haven was 20 years ago is not what it is now.”