What would you think if you saw 20 teachers walking down your block in matching shirts? What would you think if those teachers knocked on your door the week before school? You might be thinking, why would that many teachers ever go on a home visit? Welcome walks are a unique and exciting twist on traditional home visits. In this post, I’m going to break down what welcome walks are, describe what my journey has looked like, and explain how welcome walks are one of the most effective ways to build community engagement.
I have vivid memories of my mom, my Head Start teacher, and I learning together in our apartment when I was four. This teacher, Ms. Sue, gave my mom the chance to work for Head Start and I accompanied her on home visits. My work as a “teacher” began at five years old with a tiny backpack full of crayons and “important” papers around the kitchen tables of my mom’s students. Later, my mom became a parent involvement coordinator and we spent a lot of time, as a family, in the communities. I held babies, served pizza, demonstrated how to brush teeth, and read books. These early experiences connecting school and home deeply influenced who I would become as an educator.
In 2012, a school nestled in a small community outside of Washington, D.C. gave me a chance to be their first-grade teacher. That school is a Title I school that largely served immigrant students.
The school and community worked together in a beautiful and vibrant coexistence, a relationship that was built on the streets of the community before the school year even began.
I learned that this is a common back-to-school tradition in the area, called a welcome walk.
The week before students started school, all staff were given a school shirt, a class list, and a map of the community. Each teacher paired up with a faculty member, hopped in their car, and headed out into the community. Before the students ever stepped foot into our classroom, we had met them with their families at their own homes.
The energy in the community was palpable. Students were running to their doors and parents were welcoming teachers into their living rooms and offering them dinner. Teachers and faculty were laughing, chatting, and connecting with families. Former students and community members that did not have children at the school were waving and wishing us well on the upcoming year. I felt as though I had found something truly magical.
For the three years I worked there, the magic of the annual welcome walk never diminished.
Each year, I looked forward to the day we would all pull on our matching t-shirts and head out to meet our new classes. I looked forward to the chance to get a glimpse into the lives of my students, make connections, and set the tone for the year.
Throughout the year, when a student was in need or when it was crucial to reconnect with the family, I knew where they lived and they knew it was safe to open their door to me. It was an invaluable part of creating that beautiful and vibrant community engagement.
However, all good things come to an end; we left the area. I knew, without a doubt, that I wanted to continue my career with the School District of Philadelphia. Yet, I was hesitant to leave the community that I had grown to love.
Welcome Walk Meets Philadelphia
I was lucky to be accepted into yet another school in Philadelphia with a small but strong community. The students, parents, and staff are incredible. Even so, there are still barriers between the families and the school. At times, our interactions can be strained.
When Springboard came to our school to begin planning for the year, I was reminded of the importance of home visits and the power of setting the tone for the upcoming school year. I felt as though our collaboration was the perfect time to bring up the idea of the welcome walk.
The staff at Springboard and at my school were not only receptive but also excited. We decided to start small for the first year, and target a few blocks that housed many of our students. We invited all teachers to meet after school and walk together.
As a group, we knocked on doors, greeted families, and met new students. By the end, we had students chasing us down the street, parents inviting us into their homes, and teachers smiling ear-to-ear. We also met with a community leader that showed us around the rec center that many students go to after school.
It gave us the chance to begin taking the next steps toward a stronger two-way relationship with the community.
We did not have every staff member in attendance, yet. We did not get to visit every student on our roster, yet. Regardless, we were able to start the school year on a positive note with families. We were able to see the importance of promoting community beyond the walls of the school. We were able to show families that we value them outside of the school grounds. In those ways, we were successful. Maybe this will become a back to school tradition for us, in Philadelphia.
Planning for the future?
I am excited to see the welcome walk grow at our school so that we can reach more families and see more of our community first hand. I am hopeful that each year, we can take this small step towards creating a vibrant community that is reciprocal.
Have you taken part in a welcome walk or a similar event to kick-off community building at your school?
This blog was contributed by Rachel Clarke as part of our Spotlight blog series. Rachel has been a primary grades teacher for 6 years. The only thing she loves more than hearing a class of students giggling at a favorite read aloud is seeing a student laughing as they read to themselves.