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Principal goes door to door
with back-to-school message


Tired of low student turnouts on the first few days of school, Dr. Robert E. Morris, a Hartford, Connecticut, elementary school principal, decided to remind parents himself about the opening of school. Not just by letter, but in person. For the past three years, Morris and volunteers from the staff and community have walked neighborhoods on a Saturday morning, knocking on doors and stressing to students and their parents the importance of coming to school the first day. Included: A description of a community's campaign to get students in school.

Small faces peering out of windows and doors on a summer Saturday morning in Hartford, Connecticut, registered surprise and excitement when they saw who was on their doorstep calling their names.

Clark Elementary School principal Dr. Robert E. Morris (left) talks to staff and community members before they hit the streets. (Education World photo)

Dressed in a blue suit, white shirt, and blue tie that remained crisp despite the heat, Dr. Robert E. Morris, principal of John C. Clark Jr. Elementary School, rang doorbells and called up to windows for children to come down. When they did, often joined by parents, Morris and other staff members reminded youngsters that September 2 was the first day of school -- and they wanted to see them there.

"Where's Paul?" Bo Ryan, Clark's physical education teacher, boomed up at a figure in one apartment window. "Tell him to come down here."

This is the third year that Clark staff and community members have gone door-to-door the week before school opens to urge students to come to school on opening day to start the year off right. Families received letters notifying them of the home visits.

"Parents are very receptive to this approach," Morris told Education World. "We're sharing our expectations, encouraging kids to come on time, come the first day, and we're bonding with parents. We want to dispel the myth that urban parents and children don't care about school. If you get them involved, they do care."

Determined to make a difference

One idea Morris is determined to impress upon families is the importance of sending their children to school on the first day. The Hartford school system overall has low turnout the first few days of school, and district officials have been encouraging school staff to improve attendance. In 2000, the year Morris started at Clark, first-day attendance at the school was 78 percent, which he said, needed to change.

After walking the neighborhoods in 2001 and 2002, first-day attendance went up to 82 percent in 2001, followed by 87 percent last year. "I say, why not 100 percent this year?" Morris told Education World.

To reach even more parents and children, the school staff and community members planned to host a block party last Saturday, with food and entertainment, to remind families once again that school starts in three days. "That could get us another 5 percent," added Morris. The school is anticipating an enrollment of 450 students in pre-K to sixth grade.

While the reasons children don't start school on time are varied, Morris said, many parents don't realize the importance of the first few days of school. Often parents think teachers will just take attendance and students will socialize. "But we teach on the first day," Morris said. "We encourage teachers to prepare lessons for the first few days."

Most of the children are from low-income families, and parents often tell him they cannot afford new clothes for the first day of school, said Morris. "I tell them not to worry about new clothes," he said. "Just make sure they are clean."

School staff also must cope with an ever-changing population. The annual mobility rate is about 30 percent. "If people find a better apartment, they just go," Morris noted.

Honks, hugs and waves

Principal Dr. Robert E. Morris and pre-K teacher Ghei Steadwell leave a student's home after reminding a parent about the date school opens.
(Education World photo)

The variety of challenges facing their students does not affect the staff's enthusiasm for the Saturday walk. Volunteers were divided into teams to canvas different neighborhoods; many of the teams included teachers who hoped to meet some of their new students.

This year, faculty and community members also distributed gift bags to families, with household items such as plastic containers and paper towels, and erasers and buttons for the children, as well as a list of the school's expectations for the year.

"I'm so excited; I'm so happy; I'm not going to let anything get in my way," Morris said to the volunteers in the school's lobby before they hit the streets. "I never had this big a turnout; this tells me I have to work harder."

Shortly after 9 a.m., Morris, Ryan, four other teachers, and a member of the Salvation Army set out as one team. A few blocks from the school, they were crunching over broken glass past boarded up windows and doors to find Clark students.

"Good morning, Dr. Morris!" a woman called. A little girl came running out of her apartment to give the principal a hug. People who drove by and recognized him honked and waved.

"Have you been reading?" Morris asked a boy. "We're really pushing reading this year," he said to an adult. "We want everyone to read five books a month. We want to take our learning to a new level."

On almost every block, children stopped Ryan; they shrieked greetings before bear-hugging him or leaping into his arms. He paused to chat with residents about their children, and their lives since they graduated from Clark.

Melissa Trantolo, a new Clark fifth-grade teacher, said she was eager to meet some of her students. "I think this is a great idea to get the community involved," said Trantolo, who, like the others, was juggling class lists and the gift bags as they walked. "It lets the parents know we're willing to go the extra mile for them and their child."

At one stop, one of Trantolo's fifth graders came out to meet her. "Hi, I'm Miss Trantolo, your new teacher," she said to the boy. "I'll see you on the 2nd."

The volunteers pulled open battered doors, and walked down neglected hallways to pound on apartment doors. If no one answered a door, Morris or a teacher used cell phones to call the families to tell them they were outside or on their way.

"Word gets around," Morris said. "Even if they don't see us, as long as people communicate that we've been around, that helps out tremendously."

Most adults who came to the door recognized Morris; several hesitated when he quizzed them about the opening day of school. "Do you know when school opens?" he asked. If they were unsure, he quickly said, "September 2. Is your child going to be there?"

Making that connection

The home visits show families that the school and community are willing to make an extra effort to help the students, volunteers said. "It's important to alert them to when the first day of school is, and to show them how much we love the kids," said Ryan, who was named Hartford's Teacher of the Year last year. "The kids have a lot of energy and enthusiasm. If you give to them, they give back 110 percent."

Ghei Steadwell, a pre-kindergarten teacher who also tutors students after school, said that coming into the neighborhood helps connect new parents and reconnect other parents to the school. "It makes them feel like they belong," Steadwell said. "It's a little jolt to remind them when school opens. And the kids get so excited to see the staff."