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The Angle, September 2019 – Behind the Scenes of Back-to-School

While the aroma of summer barbecues lingers in the air, the season is officially over for most of LA’s schoolchildren. Back-to-School for families means a frenzy of shopping for clothes and classroom supplies—along with the return to bedtime routines. But what’s going on behind the scenes of our schools? How do educators and administrators alike prepare for these same transitions?

To get a sense of how teachers, administrators and support staff prepare for a new year of serving toddlers, preschoolers and kindergarteners, we consulted some experts in the field. Whether you’re a parent of a new-to-school child wondering what it’s all about, or a teacher looking to refine your own back-to-school strategies, there’s important preparation at hand.

Before the Beginning

Richard Martinez is the Superintendent of Pomona Unified School District (PUSD), which has won local and national accolades for its education success. PUSD has its very own universal preschool program – meaning, everyone in the district can attend – and a very successful high-school graduation rate; a correlation Mr. Martinez is never shy to talk about.

He shared the complex but typical timeline for back-to-school planning, which might surprise those of us outside the education field.

“Administrators begin the planning process during the fall of the previous year,” he explained. “Enrollment plans are typically drafted between September and October, though many revisions occur after this [period].”

Later on, during the spring, administrators work closely with teachers in planning educational processes. “We use data from classroom observations and assessments to guide [us] in creating the professional development plan for the upcoming year,” Martinez says. “Our timelines are set with clear benchmarks, and the Child Development Department works collaboratively to ensure we are prepared for the new year.”

Parents are Crucial Teaching Partners

One of the biggest “back to school” challenges for early education providers is working with “new to school” students and their families. Martinez stresses the importance of partnering with parents, especially when a child has never been in a classroom setting.

“The teacher must develop a positive rapport with parents immediately to determine the best course of action for each child’s development—physical, emotional, cognitive and social,” he stresses. “Establishing that relationship takes time; it is, however, [crucial] to understanding the student and their individual needs.”

This strategy is echoed in advice from the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest employee organization serving education professionals and a valuable source of professional development tips from experienced teachers and ECE providers. Tucson teacher Mellanay Auman starts each school year by sending home a questionnaire to parents, in English and Spanish, inviting them to share information about their child. “They get a chance to tell me what they want their child to accomplish in my class, and about their child’s strengths, hobbies and interests,” she explains. “Parents love bragging about their child, and this letter opens the lines of communication for the rest of the year.”

The Professional Toolkit

Pomona Unified offers numerous services that have proven highly successful, including home visits, parent meetings, and Back-to-School Nights. Mr. Martinez says these practices build teacher-parent relationships by giving families “the opportunity to ask teachers questions specific to curriculum, instruction and mandates for the program. Teachers [can] discuss screenings, child outcomes, and collaborate with parents on developing plans concerning their own child.”

NEA member Kathy Dowd says most parents truly appreciate the personal attention, particularly when teachers visit them off-campus. “Home visits are the best thing I ever did,” she says. “I am humbled by how hard our families work, and how little they have to show for it. It makes me realize why involvement is so hard for so many of them.”

NEA member Chad Donohue offers numerous strategies for connecting with parents, including adding something unique to the welcome packet you send home, such as coupons for local businesses or goodies from the public library. He also recommends contacting families before you go home for the day, emailing families with a personal note about the first day of school with specific positive observations. “Reaching out at the end of the first day sets a precedent that emphasizes the value you place on communication,” Donohue says. “Parents will quickly see that their kids are in the hands of a teacher who isn’t merely going through the motions, but who cares enough to share his or her enthusiasm with families.”

Quality Education is Personal

Our community’s teachers are invaluable, with hard work and dedication that often goes above and beyond in serving each child in their care. Mr. Martinez shared the story of a PUSD teacher whose passion and support for one family will have a positive ripple effect for years to come:

An area mother was struggling to raise her two young children without their father, who was apprehended while crossing the border. “She had no friends, family or anyone to talk to,” Martinez explains. When the teacher realized how alone this mother was, she connected her with other parents by supporting conversations and making the mother comfortable exchanging numbers with others. “This teacher also linked the parent to many of PUSD’s comprehensive services. The need is real in our community, and PUSD is here to serve the best way we can.”

When it comes to teacher preparedness, Mr. Martinez sums it up best: “True passion is how we accomplish so many great things here in Pomona.”