By guest blogger Titus DosRemedios

Photo Source: Buttonwood Park Zoo's Facebook page
Photo Source: Buttonwood Park Zoo’s Facebook page

A child’s transition to kindergarten is an important educational milestone. Making that transition a success requires a team effort from teachers, principals, community partners, and families.

One inspiring example of such a team effort took place on August 4, 2016, at the Buttonwood Park Zoo where the New Bedford Public Schools in partnership with P.A.C.E. Inc. held a “Smooth Sailing into Kindergarten” event for entering kindergarten students and their families. The event was designed so that children could meet their new teachers and principals, and so that families could learn more about their child’s school and other resources available in the community.

Sunshine, fun activities, and a welcoming atmosphere helped make this event compelling and fun. The Standard-Times reports, “At the zoo, the children enjoyed various activities the principals and teachers set up, among them bubble-blowing, photo-taking, a train ride and a guest-reader appearance by author Laura Vaughn.”

To highlight the event and create lasting memories each student received a family portrait from Lifetouch, marking their journey into the New Bedford Public Schools.

“A good time was had by all — and school officials hope there will be plenty more to come,” the Standard-Times continued. “Superintendent Pia Durkin called the gathering ‘the first step in a successful educational journey from kindergarten all the way through college.’ ”

Several community organizations volunteered their time and resources for the event, including Little People’s College, Mass in Motion, the New Bedford Housing Authority, NorthStar Learning Centers, Reach Out and Read, the United Way, and YMCA Southcoast.

The event was well attended. Event coordinator Julie Mador, manager of the school district’s Family Welcome Center, reported more than 750 attendees, including 240 invited kindergarten students.

To promote the event, the district mailed free zoo admission postcards to families who had already registered for kindergarten – early registration is an annual goal for the district – then followed up with telephone reminders. Invitations were translated into Spanish and Portuguese. Families who had not yet registered for kindergarten could do so at the event.

That strategy seems to have paid off as the zoo was full that day, and so was the parking lot!


Viewpoints from event coordinators

“We exceeded all expectations,” said Mador. “I was thrilled to see how many families were able to participate as many of our families face transportation issues.”

Mador discovered that the family-school-community connection was strengthened by this event.

Parents, children, principals, teachers, and parent support specialists were aided by the tremendous efforts of the Buttonwood Park Zoo staff. Many families were attending the zoo for the first time, and Mador was glad that this event helped local families make that connection. “The zoo was great! They wanted to know from what areas of the city everyone came, so we were able to collect that data and share it with their staff.”

Photo Source: Buttonwood Park Zoo’s Facebook page
Photo Source: Buttonwood Park Zoo’s Facebook page

Mador was pleased that the event focused on fun and established a positive relationship between parents and schools. “I think it was such a positive event because we want to engage our families early and carry them through,” she said. “Some families and cultures think that the school is for the educators, not the families. We wanted to send the message that you are welcome to our schools. Maintaining a positive family school connection with our parents will build a strong foundation of learning and mutual trust as they embark on their child’s educational journey.”

“I heard so many children say ‘I’m so excited about starting kindergarten… I saw my school today! I’m so happy,’” said Jacqueline Morel, assistant program director at P.A.C.E. Child Care Works.

“I feel like any opportunity for parent engagement is a wonderful thing,” said Lynne Adams, school liaison for the Family Resource and Development Center at United Way of Greater New Bedford. “This setting was a relaxed way to allow families and school educators to come together and engage in a positive way. That relationship is ongoing, so if it starts off on a positive note, that sets the stage going forward.”

“I introduced one dad to his principal,” said Adams. Both the school principal and the father were thankful for the introduction. “There are so many anxieties and fears around starting school. It’s nice to have that face before school starts. It alleviates the child’s and parent’s anxiety.”

The “Smooth Sailing into Kindergarten” event, which had taken place annually in past years, was brought back to New Bedford thanks to a growing city-wide collaboration.

“Restoring this wonderful event for entering kindergarteners and their families has taken the work of both private and public partners meeting monthly over the last year,” said Sandra Ledvina, an early childhood and special educator. “This is only one of four initiatives that the Readiness Subcommittee works on to share the importance of early learning opportunities with families of young children. Seeing the smiles of prideful children eager for school to start and their families enjoying the day at the Zoo, meeting their principals along with some of their teachers, made all the hard work so worthwhile.”

Photo Source: Buttonwood Park Zoo’s Facebook page
Photo Source: Buttonwood Park Zoo’s Facebook page

One of the event organizers, Ledvina is a community volunteer who serves on the kindergarten readiness subcommittee of New Bedford’s Birth – Third Grade Partnership. The Partnership promotes school readiness and family engagement through a variety of events, outreach efforts, and policy strategies. The Partnership also manages an “All Hands on Deck” early literacy campaign, affiliated with the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. The Partnership began in 2014 thanks to an alignment grant offered by the Department of Early Education and Care. The ongoing collaboration brings together many different organizations serving young children in the city: the school district, private preschools, the housing authority, social service agencies, and more.


Lessons learned 

Communities looking to improve family engagement should follow New Bedford’s example and plan outreach activities that build relationships between families, schools, and community partners. To succeed, communities should:

• Focus on the kindergarten transition.

• Take a full year to prepare families, and collaborate with community partners on a variety of activities and strategies, such as New Bedford’s “Smooth Sailing into Kindergarten” calendar, and

• Spread the word on the importance of early kindergarten registration, so that schools and families aren’t stressing out on the first day of school to sign up.

Establishing positive family-school-community relationships by the start of kindergarten is a winning strategy for supporting young learners, and sets the tone for the rest of the school year and the many years to follow.