September/October 2020 Issue
August 22, 2020

Summer visits build partnerships with families

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Nightengale Elementary teacher Amanda Taraska, right, and school counselor Christine Winston talk with kindergartner Joey Terminelli during a family visit this summer. Looking on from the deck are parents Jenilee and Joe Terminelli and little brother Adam. Photo by Jason Hunter.

In this age of COVID-19, Massena educators weren’t sure what kind of response they’d get when they offered to meet in person with families of future kindergartners and seventh-graders this summer.

The North Country teachers and counselors targeted those two grade levels because they’re key transition times, as students start school or make the big jump from elementary to middle school.

“It’s our second year doing family visits and I was honestly surprised how many families said yes,” said Kristin Colarusso-Martin, director of the district’s Community Schools program. “We’re meeting on porches, in backyards and driveways — wherever families are comfortable and we can practice social distancing.”

Teachers at Madison Elementary set up a canopy-style tent outside the school, while other families preferred a picnic table at the local park.

“The visits have definitely been a lot different this year, but in a way they felt even more important and relevant,” said Jessica Jarrett, a family and consumer science teacher at Massena Junior High School.

“There’s so much uncertainty and everyone had so many questions.”

Jarrett, who teamed up with middle school counselor Van Alexander for the visits, said conversations ran the gamut — from a student who was nervous about his transition from a small Catholic school to others who wanted to learn how the district’s planned hybrid learning schedule would work.

At one visit at the town park, a grandfather was eager to find out more about online learning and expectations for his granddaughter.

What’s the difference between synchronous and asynchonous learning? When are assignments due? And how can she get in touch with teachers? “I felt like our conversation really helped put him at ease,” Alexander said.

The visits also help reassure students.

“Most kids are really nervous about junior high, even when there’s not a pandemic or remote instruction,” Alexander said. “We usually do orientation sessions the week before school starts, but obviously we can’t do that this year.”

Jarrett said it’s important for students to understand that middle school is a time for them to become more responsible and independent learners — and learn to speak up for themselves. “Some students really struggled with online learning, so this gave us a chance to discuss what happened and how they can get help when they need it,” she said. “It’s so important to make that personal connection, and hopefully give them an adult at school they feel like they can go to.”

Kindergarten teacher Amanda Taraska said the visits give her a powerful head start on getting to know her students and building trust with parents.

On one recent visit with five-yearold Joey Terminelli, she and school counselor Christine Winston learned about his love for Paw Patrol and Canadiens Hockey. Four-year-old Jamie Plourde proudly showed off his bike and told them he’s a big fan of Ryan’s Toys videos.

“It means a lot to them that their teacher came to their house and it helps us make connections,” Taraska said. “This year we brought them a Countdown to Kindergarten book to help them get ready for the big day.”

Taraska said the summertime visits also make parents more comfortable.

“Rather than meeting the first time at school or Open House night, it’s helpful for us to meet on their ‘turf,’ she said. “It really starts the year on a positive note.”

Massena’s family visit program is one of several community engagement projects sponsored by NYSUT, with support from National Education Association. Under the grant, NYSUT provided training on best practices for home visits, with an emphasis on how to reengage with families after the school closures this spring. The visits are voluntary and educators are well-trained and compensated.

“The visits are even more important this year because the kids need to have that human contact,” Taraska said. “With so much uncertainty, I kept thinking this might be my only chance to connect with them face-to-face. I might not see them in person again.”