In her 19 years of teaching kindergarten, Kerry Martinelli has seen it all. But this year, the Somersworth NH kindergarten teacher had a first: visiting with the families of each of her students before the start of school.

So when 18 children walked into her classroom on the first day of school last week for the first time, Mrs. Martinelli was able to greet each child by name. And in turn, they knew her face and who would be taking care of them that day.

The family visit program is part of the Somersworth Ready Together initiative, a new program funded and operated through United Way of the Greater Seacoast and the Somersworth Early Childhood Coalition, with the goal of helping all families better prepare their children for kindergarten.

Beginning a new school year and routine is stressful for any family, but for low-income families with added stressors, it can be especially overwhelming. For that reason, it wasn’t surprising that the biggest concerns among the families Martinelli visited were not academic, but logistical, like how to make sure their kids could get breakfast and lunch at school. In fact, 54% of the students in the Somersworth district qualify for free and reduced lunch.

BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS

Research shows that children do much better in school when families are engaged. Beyond helping with the logistics of school meals and bus schedules, the family visits provide a unique, one-on-one opportunity for the teacher and families to discuss their concerns and become comfortable with one another, setting the stage for a more productive year of school.

“It makes parents feel better to have one-on-one attention with someone listening to the needs of their child. And for the teacher, you gain an understanding of family dynamics and get to see the child in their environment with parents before they come into the classroom.”

This new approach is a big contrast to the typical Open House, when families all come in the night before school starts, already nervous and anxious. There is so much information to share and not everyone has an opportunity to meet with the teacher and talk about their child’s individual needs in that short time. It’s an overwhelming experience for everyone.

“Many of these families have food insecurity, transportation barriers, language barriers,” explained Martinelli. “If they had a bad experience in school growing up, it can be very difficult for them to have positive feelings about school and teachers, so we want to make them comfortable and have a positive outlook on their child’s education.”

This year, the Open House was remarkably different. Having already experienced the family visits, parents were visibly more comfortable, talking to one another, smiling and excited about the year ahead.

The hope is that this increased comfort level from day one will make the whole year easier for everyone, ultimately resulting in a child who is better able to succeed in school.

WHY DON’T MORE SCHOOLS DO THIS?

Visiting with the families of every student is a lot of work and a lot to ask of teachers who are busy preparing lesson plans and classrooms during the month of August. Schools can’t require that they do it, so the funding from United Way provides critical support, offering a small stipend as compensation for their time.

The Somersworth Ready Together initiative is just one part of a multi-pronged approach toward kindergarten readiness that United Way is launching in the region, including public awareness, family engagement, and developmental screenings.

“The family visits are an exciting component of our overall strategy – helping all children in Somersworth arrive at Kindergarten ready to learn,” said Lauren Wool, Senior Director of Community Impact at United Way of the Greater Seacoast. “This year three Kindergarten teachers met with nearly 100% of their incoming students and families as part of this pilot. We are confident this warm welcome will benefit everyone involved throughout the school year and years to come.”

Already, it has been worth the investment. “I can tell you right now I will do family visits for the rest of my career. It was so beneficial,” said Martinelli.

One of the questions Martinelli asks on her visits is a parent’s hopes and dreams for their child. Typical of kindergarten, they range from very specific to very broad. “I heard everything from ‘I hope he grows up happy and able to follow his dreams’ to ‘I would love it if she would make her bed.’”

So far, they’re already off to a better start toward a successful year of kindergarten – no matter where their dreams may take them.

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