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Get off to a good start: Be proactive

Tips for beginning this year – and every year – right

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

As the school year begins, students trade swimsuits for school books as they return to their daily grind. No matter the outcome of the year before, many students will admit to some excitement for the coming year. Miles Johnston, a sophomore and football player at Central High School, said, “Like most kids, I miss the social aspects of school.”

But how can parents get their kids off to a good start and ensure that this year will be a successful one academically and socially? Getting organized and into a good routine is only one piece of the puzzle.

For starters, be proactive from the first day of school. Encourage your child to get help as soon as questions come up, rather than waiting until report card time to seek assistance.

“Our research shows that 9th graders who fail English or math are 75 percent less likely to graduate on time,” said Courtney Collins-Shapiro, the District’s director of Multiple Pathways to Education.

So, students who enlist assistance early on are more likely to stay on track with their credits.

“High school is very different from middle school,” said Shapiro. “They’re on the clock now. Everything counts.”

Rod Sutton, assistant principal at University City High School, works with incoming freshmen. He notes that underclassmen can initially feel overwhelmed by high school life.

“Sometimes freshmen get intimidated by the environment. High school is new, and sometimes it’s frightening.” He encourages his students to create habits that urge them toward success, such as seeking out an advisor when they first note there’s an issue.

To some degree, every parent will ready their kids for the new school year with a ritual of their own. But here are more tips on how you can get your child off to a good start not just this year, but every year.

Attend school and District events

One of the most important school events is Back-to-School Night.

Dates for back-to-school nights are determined by the individual schools, but they are generally held September through October. Vincent Thompson, a spokesperson for the District, said parents should check with their child’s school for specific dates and encouraged every parent to attend.

“It gives you a whole overview of what the school is expecting to do, you get to meet your kids’ teachers, the Home and School Council leadership, and you get valuable information about the school and what’s expected of parents and students, with the goal for everyone to have a successful school year,” Thompson said.

October is Parent Appreciation Month in Philadelphia, and the District’s Office of Parent, Family, Community Engagement and Faith-Based Partnerships is organizing a variety of districtwide events – beginning with a parent appreciation fair on Saturday morning, October 3 and ending with the kickoff for the District’s Parent University on October 24, both at 440 N. Broad Street.

Events like the District’s Annual Back-to-School Block Party are another avenue for collecting resources and establishing connections with teachers, staff, and other parents. Generally held in August, the free daylong event sponsored by the District and Radio One, draws thousands of people citywide to District headquarters for information on everything from student health to Advanced Placement courses. Food, fun activities, and giveaways are also a part of the day. At this year’s event, over 4,500 students received a backpack stuffed with supplies.

“We wanted to provide parents with the resources to be fully school-ready and create stronger parent connections to schools,” said Karren Dunkley, Deputy Chief of the Office of Community and Family Engagement, who helped coordinate the event.

Get involved at school

When it comes to exercising the District’s core value of “parents as our partners,” Hunter Elementary parent Nilda Domenech has taken parent participation to heart. Through the District’s Parent Scholar Program, she trained to work in classrooms as a Supportive Services Assistant and now she works at Hunter as a SSA.

“The school always reached out to us and I wanted to stay [a] part of it,” she said. “[Plus] I want to see with my own eyes exactly what’s going on.”

Community members and families appreciate invitations to participate in school experiences, even once kids are older, Domenech said.

Gerald Wright, who has two daughters in 3rd and 8th grade at J.S. Jenks, stressed the importance of being involved and building relationships at school.

“Contact the principal and teachers early on to talk about new things that may be happening or the focus for your child’s grade level. What’s their plan? What’s the goal? And then be prepared to assist your child with whatever they need,” he said.

“Also, find out the teacher’s preferred way of being contacted – get their phone number or email address. We have to make sure that teachers can contact us as well.”

For parents, participation can also mean helping to shape some of the social aspects that are important to a student’s academic success.

For high schoolers, social connections at home, in school, and in the community are essential.

Brian Rahaman, director of out-of-school services at Sayre High School, stresses that social outlets keep students engaged. Rahaman runs a unique after-school program for kids in grades 9-12. During the school year, students select an area of focus and execute real-world projects based on their interests.

“This allows students to connect what they’re learning in the classroom with things they want to do in real life,” he said. “Whether they’re playing an instrument, playing sports, or designing a program, they have got to be connected to school via more than just their classes.”

Summer activities important too

Don’t wait until the first day of school to get all of your ducks in a row. Start early.

Domenech, whose son Jonathan is entering first grade at Hunter, enrolled him in summer enrichment classes to keep him sharp for the upcoming school year. Jonathan wasn’t alone. In fact, more than 30,000 students enrolled in the District’s summer school and enrichment programs. Rising 9th graders participated in a handful of Summer Bridge programs held at seven comprehensive high schools to obtain resources, strategies, and tips for high school success.

“Summer Bridge focuses on the transition from 8th grade to high school and the skills that students need to be successful as 9th graders and ultimately through their high school career,” said Tanya Ruley, program manager for Multiple Pathways to Graduation.

Kinsey Elementary School principal Betty Richardson also suggested that during summer school parents check in often with teachers about their children’s progress. Attending summer school has always been a popular option to not only help kids catch up with coursework, but also keep them engaged in academics and ready to go back to school.

Regular visits to the neighborhood library during the summer months can also be a good strategy for getting prepared.

According to Vanessa Irvin-Morris, a former librarian and current professor in Drexel’s College of Information Sciences and Technology, summer reading at the library keeps kids sharp year-round.

“It’s a place where people can exchange ideas,” said Irvin-Morris, who ran a book club for teen girls. “Books help kids stay refreshed, so that they don’t go back to school groggy.” She also said that selecting texts to read daily also reinforces kids’ academic interests throughout the school year.

Find a mentor

While the counselor-to-student ratio will be improved this year because of an increase in the number of guidance counselors, it can help to also identify a mentor for your child – someone who can provide individualized attention and additional resources that you can use to guide your child’s academic future.

Maurice Watson, director of climate at Boys’ Latin Charter School, coordinates the school’s Extended Family Network (EFN), a schoolwide program that connects each student with three mentors. These mentors, or Parent-led Team Members, log in at least 40 hours of interaction with students each grading period. And they aren’t just parents, either.

“We recognize that kids are influenced by multiple people, and so we want to invite them to play a formal role in the student’s success,” Watson said.

Finding a mentor who’s right for your child does require some effort, but you can start right at your child’s school. Seven comprehensive high schools that received U.S. Department of Labor grants last June are required to implement mentoring programs at their schools. But if your child does not attend one of these schools (Bartram, FitzSimons, Germantown, Lincoln, Overbrook, University City, or West Philadelphia), not to worry.

“There are so many resources in Philly,” said Rahaman. “Agencies, parents, and school leaders (just need to) come together to ensure that our kids are more involved and engaged.”

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