Raquan made a beat on the table as he and his family improvised a rap about pirates featuring words ending in “ip.”
Ajhora picked up a card with the word “in” and matched it to the same word on her paper with coaching from her mother, Malika.
Jaceon, his mother, Tykira, and his father, Albert, read Mrs. Wishy Washy’s Farm and hunted for words they recognized.
Makki chose a card with a picture of a fish. The teacher asked, “What letter does fish start with?” “F” Makki said proudly. Makki’s father, Martel, took the lead for the next card.
The children and their families at Princess Anne Elementary School were working and enjoying time together at a recent “Lunch and Learn,” an innovative program to engage families in their child’s learning.
The school, in coordination with the Somerset County Judy Center, created this special program in response to a parent’s suggestion. The parent shared with Principal Cortney Monar that she found it difficult to attend evening programs after a full day’s work. However, the parent said she could be involved more if an event were scheduled at the same time as her lunch break.
Providing family engagement opportunities based on family input ensures that the program is meeting the families’ needs.
“You put a lot of energy into family engagement and then find out that you’re not really meeting the needs of the families so then, what’s the point?” said Karen Karten, Early Childhood/Somerset Judy Center Coordinator.
One mother, Aaron Clark, said she has been attending Judy Center programs since her daughter was born. Like other families who come to the Lunch and Learns, Clark understands the importance of being involved in her child’s school.
This is especially true for Laquisha Knockett, who had just finished a night shift and attended with her son Raquan, baby daughter Ronquise, and their father Ronrecus. Laquisha said Lunch and Learns give them a time to be together and that her son brags about his family being at the school all the time.
The pilot for Lunch and Learn was last year at Princess Anne Elementary. With funding from a Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore grant, Lunch and Learn expanded this year to include two more Somerset County elementary schools, Deal Island and Woodson.
To meet the families’ needs, Princess Anne Elementary offers taxis for those without transportation, provides meals, and warmly welcomes the students’ younger siblings. But Karten feels the program’s true secret to success is involving the children.
“When it was just the parents coming in, we had participation,” Karten said. “But when we started saying, ‘Your child is going to teach you. Come and hear what your child has to say,’ then we had even more participation.”
The program’s format is simple, but effective. Families arrived during lunchtime so they could eat with the children, with the most recent Lunch and Learn featuring Taco Day. Conversation flowed as the families enjoyed each another as well as the relationships they have built with other families. Prekindergarten teacher Hannah Quillen also visited with the families and children.
“There are a few [parents] I hadn’t met … or spoken to until these Lunch and Learns started,” said Quillen, who had more than half of the families from her class attend the last event. “I can’t speak enough good things about how nice it is to get parents into the school.”
When lunch was finished, the work began. Baskets of fun activities focusing on literacy skills like sight words, letter sounds, and rhyming words were set out at the tables.
The families and children work together to build important school readiness skills. Previous Lunch and Learns have focused on social foundations and math skills. By providing opportunities for families and children to build skills together, Somerset County’s Lunch and Learns demonstrate important family engagement strategies described in Goal Two of the Maryland Early Childhood Family Engagement Toolkit: Family engagement initiatives should promote positive parent-child relationships and Goal Three: Family engagement initiatives should support families as lifelong educators of their children.
Quillen emphasized the importance of having families at the school.
“I feel like the kids associate school as one whole separate realm,” she said. “It’s amazing to see that they realize that parents can come to school and parents can learn too. It’s really great. We love having them.”
Do you have an innovative way to engage families in your program? Consider submitting a news article to Maryland Families Engage.