As early care and education providers, teachers and staff prepare for a new school year, including parents and families before the children walk in on the first day is a great way to build relationships and partnerships that will benefit everyone.
Timber Grove Elementary School took a new approach this past school year to welcoming students and their parents and families by hosting an event in the community instead of on school grounds.
Returning families and those new to the area had the chance to get to know teachers and each other over hot dogs and French fries at an apartment complex not far from the Baltimore County school.
Teachers and staff grilled for the families around the community pool for the “Tearing Down the Walls” cookout about a week before the first day of school.
“We wanted to engage the community, and we wanted [families] to know that we’re here for them,” said Diana Tedesco, a fourth-grade teacher at Timber Grove and co-president of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTO). “We want them to feel welcome and safe at Timber Grove.”
Tedesco and her co-president, third-grade teacher Courtney Long, decided to organize the cookout at the Timbercroft Apartment Homes after hearing about the idea at a conference. Another school had an issue similar to Timber Grove’s—dwindling parental involvement over the last few years despite numerous creative attempts to draw in parents and families.
Instead of trying to think of one more way to get parents and families to the school, the teachers did the reverse. They brought the school to the families.
“It’s amazing. I never heard of a community doing such a thing. It’s just great,” said Regine Nguilok, whose oldest daughter, Janet, transferred to Timber Grove as a third-grader for the new school year.
Nguilok moved to the apartment complex in Owings Mills earlier in the year, but decided to let Janet finish second grade at Reisterstown Elementary instead of moving her midyear. This cookout was a welcome surprise, giving her and her daughter the chance to meet teachers and new classmates in a fun setting.
“It’s caring. They really wanted to show us love. I love it,” Nguilok said.
Timber Grove’s willingness to take a chance to “revamp” what hadn’t been working, change its approach, and involve families is the first step in family engagement, said Cynthia LaMarca Lessner, Branch Chief for the Division of Early Childhood in the Maryland State Department of Education.
“This was a great idea,” Lessner said. “You’re going to them. You’re making the effort to establish that relationship.”
The cookout also met two goals outlined in the state’s Maryland Early Childhood Family Engagement Framework, and Maryland Family Engagement Toolkit, which detail practical strategies to support educators and providers as they work to improve family engagement in their schools and programs:
- Goal Five: Family engagement initiatives should support families through the care and education transitions of early childhood.
- Goal Six: Family engagement initiatives should connect families to their peers and the community.
“You have the chance to have that relationship, and families will feel more comfortable,” she said. “They’re more likely to come back out.”
In 2011, Maryland received federal funding to enhance family engagement efforts in the state. The following year, the Maryland Family Engagement Coalition was started with the goal of helping early care and education providers, and teachers create deeper, more meaningful partnerships with families of young children. The coalition then developed the family engagement framework, which was approved by the Maryland Early Childhood Advisory Council and State Board of Education.
The toolkit helps give educators and providers guidance and an understanding about what the family engagement framework is, and they often realize that they’re already incorporating many of the strategies that will help them connect with families.
“They see, ‘Oh, I’m already doing this, and they get excited,’ ” Lessner said. “You can see that you’re already successful at this.”
For the Timber Grove community, the teachers and staff who joined parents and students had the opportunity to hang out in a casual atmosphere, steps away from the families’ homes and yards.
About 30 students and almost as many parents responded to the invitation to meet at Timbercroft’s pool area. Because this was the first time holding an event like this, Tedesco and Long weren’t sure about the best way to get the word out, especially before school started. News of the cookout went out on social media, through email, and by flyers at the apartments.
The school had also partnered with Glyndon United Methodist Church, and received donations from several local grocery stores. Church members ran the French fry station, while teachers and school staff cooked and served the hot dogs.
Lessner explained that casual events like this one gives educators and providers the opportunity to gain a broader perspective of families’ lives, and hopefully lead to greater empathy.
“They will have a better understanding of families and what their needs are,” she said.