By Kendra Carpenter
Have you ever wondered if families would attend your school if they had a choice? Due to some programming changes in our district, this is a question I have been pondering lately. To answer it, I had to identify what makes our school special. On the surface, it has always been our dual language program. For the last 13 years, we have offered a bilingual program with English and Spanish. Since starting this program, we have watched our enrollment grow from the mid 200’s to just over 400. Currently, we are the largest elementary school in our small district. Our uniqueness due to our programming is about to end as one of our neighboring elementary schools is starting a dual language program as well.
This led me to dig deeper into the culture of our school and really contemplate what it is that makes our culture inviting and inclusive. Certainly the dual language aspect helps support an inviting culture. At any time, the majority of our parents know they can enter the school and immediately speak with someone in their native language. Our office staff and classroom teachers reflect the diversity of our families. Parents have both an English and Spanish speaking point person they can turn to for questions and/or support. Although it seems simple, just greeting parents with a smile when they enter our building makes a difference.
When I peeled back more layers, I also realized that we offer some unique events that honor the different cultures and backgrounds of our families. Each year we start out with a family fun run called “El Grito.” This event is to celebrate independence for Latin countries around the world. Parents and the community are invited and the whole school runs/walks through the neighborhood. We end with a huge festival of food, where our families bring in dishes that represent their home countries. All classes perform a song or dance from around the world and we have time to come together as a community. This event helps us set the tone for the year.
Another special offering is our Mother Tongue Celebration. We invite families to share traditions about their home country through pictures, food, dance, games, etc.. Students work through stations, participating in small groups. Each year my heart is warmed watching children beam with pride as their parents present to the rest of the student body.
We have worked hard to create a strong culture of literacy in our building. This has taken time and a lot of hard work, but we send home books nightly in both English and Spanish for all of our students. We continue this practice throughout the summer, opening our doors every other week so that students can come in and exchange books. This practice is not perfect, and we still have students that do not read, but it is not due to a lack of resources in the home.
We are lucky to live in a community that offers many opportunities to participate in sports, at little to no cost. As a school we work hard to recruit all of our students to play on the various teams. Teachers kindly volunteer their time to stay several evenings and hold sign up nights to help parents work their way through paperwork that is often not in their native language. Once teams are formed, personal phone calls are made to let parents know what team their child is on, what nights they will practice and when games will be held. Standing on the side lines on a weekly basis watching as our kids play has created the added benefit of parent relationships. Through these events, parents have become more comfortable with one another and the children have grown their social group. This is also true for the myriad of clubs that teachers offer in the mornings. We have everything from knitting to chess to cursive writing. All free and open to any student that wants to participate. These clubs also honor the schedule that our parents need to keep for work. School does not start until 8:45, but we open our doors at 8:00 because so many of our families need to get to work. This way, their children are engaged in quality activities and forming strong relationships with teachers outside of the classroom.
To keep the focus on the positive, once a month we use the first 15 minutes of our Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) to make positive phone calls home. We knew this was a need when the majority of our parents answered the phone wondering what their child had done wrong. It is taking time to turn this culture around and let parents know we want to highlight the good. Now, when we do have to call home about a behavior incident we have a well established relationship.
One area I need to work to improve is my ongoing communication with parents. Last year I started a podcast for parents in English and Spanish. This allowed me to communicate with our parents, regardless of their reading ability. I was able to text out a link to phones, which also supported ease of use. Despite receiving positive feedback and increased attendance at meetings, I have let this practice fall to the wayside. This is one of my goals to revive this practice for next year.
We certainly aren’t perfect and are always looking for ideas to get more diverse participation in organizations like our PTSA and Building Accountability, but as long as we keep it in the forefront of our minds we are doing something right. So, what are your traditions and systems that make your school welcoming? What are the ideas you would share with others? As a principal, I think building and sustaining a welcoming school is one of the most important things we do. We need our families to be part of our team and it is through a welcoming culture that we can accomplish this goal.
Kendra Carpenter is an elementary principal and CCIRA council leader in Summit School District in Colorado. Find her on Twitter at @kendracarpen.