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Fall Guide 2009 Vol. 17. No. 1 Spotlight on High Schools

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Get off to a good start: Be proactive

Tips for beginning this year – and every year – right

By by Alesha Jackson
Photo: School District of Philadelphia

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman greeted families at the District’s second annual back-to-school block party. District and school events like this are good opportunities to stay on top of educational developments and available resources.

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.

About the Author

Alesha Jackson is a member of the Notebook editorial board and a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

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