Easing start-of-school jitters

Welcome: Open houses, back-to-school nights and `First Day' celebrations are designed to ease the concerns of children - and parents.

August 25, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

The mother carefully walks her daughter up the school stairs and then points to the left. "Look, it's right there," Mary Holtzner says, motioning to daughter Brittany's new classroom. "How easy is that?"

As school starts up again, the Opening Day jitters are back. Nervous schoolchildren wonder whether they'll find their classroom, like their teacher and know some of their classmates. Parents can't help but worry themselves.

To ease the concerns, many Baltimore-area schools are increasingly turning to a novel approach: opening their doors early, so the anxious can find their way around, put a face to their teachers' names and see who else will be in their classes.

As a result, a child's first day in school is often no longer the official start. In some schools, parents join their children in the classroom on the first day. Or principals are holding back-to-school nights not long after school starts.

Catonsville Elementary School, where Brittany Holtzner will attend the third grade, held an open house for parents and students Thursday evening, four days before tomorrow's start of classes.

"What it does is create a more welcoming environment," says Principal Catherine Amsel, who began welcoming parents and students two years ago through the school's blue doors with a "Hi, how are you?" and a hug.

From Salinas, Calif., to Buffalo, N.Y., thousands of other principals have also started inviting schoolchildren and parents to walk-throughs and meet-and-greets. This summer, many schools throughout the Baltimore region invited parents to visit with their children before the school year formally starts.

"It can be before school begins. It can be on the first day. It can be on open house night," says Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at the Johns Hopkins University. "They are becoming more varied and more prominent."

The efforts don't simply calm the nerves of anxious schoolchildren and parents, Epstein says. They also boost parental involvement because mothers and fathers come to see the schools as a welcome spot, rather than an imposing place. And students' academic achievements depend on their parents' involvement.

After pointing out her 8-year-old daughter's new class at Catonsville Elementary, Holtzner agrees the open house has done more than reassure her about the start of school. "It just makes me feel like I'm already a part of it," she says.

At Battle Grove Elementary School in Dundalk, Principal Sharon Anthony, who is new to the school, held an ice cream social for families on Friday precisely to reach out to parents.

We really want them to know how valuable they are," she says. "Then they feel more comfortable, and they are more prone to volunteer."

For years, kindergartens, middle schools and high schools have tried to help their new students by bringing them to school a day before the rest of their classmates - it is called staggered scheduling - and the schools continue to do that.

"We've always gotten positive feedback from parents. It allows their kids not to be overwhelmed. They get to see their locker. They get to meet their teacher," says Scott Gehring, a Baltimore County official overseeing schools in the northwestern part of the system.

"It feels like your school. The anxiety dissipates quicker, so you can concentrate on learning sooner."

According to Johns Hopkins' Epstein, the open-arms invitations to both students and their parents started in the 1980s, as attention to the importance of parental involvement heightened.

Principals of schools with diverse populations have been particularly drawn to the idea because it offers a head start on integrating all members of the community into the school and their children's educations, Epstein says. But all kinds of schools have picked up on the idea because children tend to work harder and behave better if they see their parents involved in their schooling.

One sign of the approach's spread is the First Day Foundation, in Bennington, Vt.

Started in 1997 by Terry Ehrlich, the publisher of a collector-cars magazine who wanted to spur area parents to become more involved in schools, the group now has a national reach.

Last school year, more than 5,000 schools in all 50 states took up its program of inviting children and their parents to the first day of classes. This school year, Nashville, Tenn., and other cities are making the start of school a two-day event, starting with street festivals on the day before school begins.

In Annapolis, Walter S. Mills-Parole Elementary School will participate in the "First Day Celebration" for the second year on Tuesday.

Parents and students will attend an assembly, meet the teachers and staff and then go to the classrooms, where teachers will explain the new reading and math curricula.

At the red-brick Catonsville Elementary School the other evening, young children with new haircuts clung to their parents' legs as the families located new classrooms, greeted new teachers and eyed new desks.

Carol Mitchell brought her 8-year-old daughter Jessica to the school because the family is moving from Ferndale in Anne Arundel County and wanted the fourth-grader to know who her teacher is and where her classroom will be on the first day.

Knowing Jessica will feel comfortable from the start comforts Mitchell. And, the mother adds, "I want to know my way around the school because I sure will be coming here."

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