Once again this year, the city of New Bedford welcomed children and parents to a back-to-school, kick-off event at the city’s Buttonwood Park Zoo.

The third annual — “Smooth Sailing into Kindergarten” — was a chance to see animals, explore the zoo, and meet principals, teachers, and community partners. This mix of fun and school-readiness activities creates an upbeat start to the academic year.


“We want parent engagement,” which helps students succeed, Julie Mador, the district’s registrar at the Family Welcome Center on 455 County Street said in a South Coast Today article. “We want to break down barriers.”

The article adds:

“According to Mador, 1,169 people attended Thursday’s event, of which 355 were incoming kindergarten students. While no one registered for kindergarten at the zoo, many names of students were taken to be screened for preschool. Mador said she anticipates upwards of 100 more students to enroll in kindergarten.

“Members of the New Bedford Police Department were offering high-fives to kids. There was a line of families waiting to ride the zoo’s train and a photo opportunity with a ‘class of 2031’ sign.

“ ‘This is about engagement,’ said new Superintendent Thomas Anderson. He said it was a great opportunity to meet families and school staff in a low-key setting before school begins.”

Radio station WBSM broadcast a panel discussion on the event that included Titus DosRemedios, Strategies for Children’s director of Research and Policy.

Several other Massachusetts communities hold kindergarten transition events. For example, there’s Boston’s well-known Countdown to Kindergarten, which takes place annually at the Boston Children’s Museum. But to succeed, events like this require careful planning and collaboration.

In New Bedford, there are three key reasons for success.

First, Smooth Sailing into Kindergarten generates a high level of community engagement by creating a festive gathering space for parents, children, educators, and community organizations. The event is supported by the 20-plus organizations that make up the New Bedford Birth to 3rd Partnership.

Second, the event continues to improve each year by adding features such as free transportation for families (provided by the SRTA bus company), media coverage, and more extensive outreach by the school department, which ensures that all children registered for kindergarten receive Smooth Sailing invitations in the mail and reminder phone calls. In addition, event organizers — including Mador and school department staff, Buttonwood Park Zoo staff led by Paula Montgomery, and community volunteer Sandra Ledvina who chairs the Partnership’s school readiness committee — plan carefully for months to get as many details right as possible.

The third key to success is the focus on fun that makes it easier to engage families in more genuine ways.

This warm welcome is important, DosRemedios says, noting:

“In New Bedford, about a quarter of the 1,200 children who enroll in kindergarten have not had any prior preschool experience. Some children are going to be nervous – so are some of the parents. This event sends families a clear message from the entire community – we are all on your side and we want to help your children succeed in school.”