Renae Stirba, left, a Kindergarten teacher at Westbrook Elementary, and Emma Dobson, assistant principal at the school, visit Anna Cecetka and daughter Sloan, 5, at their home. Westbrook Principal Tyler Hottovy or a member of his staff try to visit the home of each incoming Kindergartner before the start of the new school year.
By Erin Duffy
With a smile and a knock on the door, Tyler Hottovy is building connections with families.
As summer winds down and the new school year approaches, the Westbrook Elementary principal in Westside Community Schools and some of his staff go the extra mile to introduce themselves to new students and families.
They visit the homes of each incoming Kindergartner—there are 54 in this year’s class—to say hi, hand out treat bags with books and small toys inside, and answer any questions Mom, Dad, or
Grandpa might have about school.
“We talk so much about partnerships,” Hottovy said. “For the longest time, I didn't realize that partnership kind of goes two ways.”
“We want to show those families that school isn’t always you coming here, you giving us your time, you giving us your children,” he said. “We’re going to reach out to you and just say ‘hi.’”
It also dovetails with the work the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and its partner schools, including Westbrook, are doing as part of the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan. The ambitious effort aims to help close the opportunity gap for young children living with poverty or other stressors in the 11 school districts that make up the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
One aspect of the plan, now entering its seventh year, is the idea of “school-as-hub,” a connection point where families and children from birth to third grade can access early childhood education and services. Home visitors from local elementary schools might visit families with new babies to show parents the importance of reading and talking to cooing infants. As they grow, kids can opt to attend a preschool program at the school and then transition to Kindergarten, creating a through-line of
consistent, quality education.
Westbrook Assistant Principal Emma Dobson with Sayara Karki, 5.
Through the plan and work with the Buffett Institute, participating schools can also receive professional development opportunities for teachers and customized coaching in areas they’ve identified as a priority, supporting language and literacy skills or working with teachers on reinforcing positive behaviors.
“It’s bringing together families, community, and school,” said Cris Lopez Anderson, program administrator at the Buffett Institute. “I like to think of it as interdependent. All three of those components are so vital to the success and the opportunities for families and children.”
Kindergarten roundups or meet-and-greets with teachers are common at elementary schools, Lopez Anderson said. But few principals take the time to visit families, one by one. The school-as-hub approach prioritizes and encourages these sorts of family-school relationships.
“This is the principal setting the stage, not just the teacher,” she said. “The highest level of influence on instruction in a building is saying, ‘This is important to me, to get to know the children and families.’ How easy will it be now for Tyler to lean in and get honest feedback (from parents) or ask for help when that door is opened?”
On a late July afternoon, Hottovy pulled up to the Bouchard house.
“Is Josiah here?” Hottovy asked dad Noah Bouchard. “We are so excited to have him!”
Five-year-old Josiah bounded out.
“I wanted to bring you some gifts before we started the school year,” Hottovy told Josiah. “They’re all for you.”
The incoming Kindergartner took careful inventory, with the help of big sister Shaelynn, 13.
“I have a bunch of toys … A stamp! I love stamps!” he said, pulling out a spiky ball and a sticky hand. “This is the best day of my life. I can’t believe I have a stamp!”
He’s excited to make new friends at Westbrook.
“I’m glad it’s really close to us,” he said, pointing to the school he can see from his front yard.
Tyler gave Dad the rundown—when school starts, how Kindergarten roundup will work. He told him there was a book in the bag and asked him to read it with Josiah.
“Are there any differences with COVID this year?” Noah Bouchard asked.
“We could have a mask mandate,” Hottovy said. (The Westside Community Schools decided the following week to require masks for elementary students and staff.)
Say thank you, his sister prodded Josiah. “Thank you,” he beamed.
“He’s got a lot of language, too,” Hottovy said after the visit. “He’s a talker.”
On the next visit, Oliver Nemetz, 5, was a little shy as Hottovy asked whether he had any pets. (Their family has nine chickens in the backyard.) But he has two older siblings who already go to Westbrook and can show him the ropes.
Assistant Principal Emma Dobson and Kindergarten teacher Renae Stirba pitched in on subsequent days, crossing names off a list and leaving the goody bags on doorsteps if no one was home.
They knelt by Sloan Cecetka, 5, who told them she likes playing with her sister and spending time with her grandmother.
Westbrook Principal Tyler Hottovy
“She’s super excited (for Kindergarten),” said Sloan’s mother, Anna Cecetka. “We thought she was going to be nervous, but she did the roundup … and she’s excited to be around other kids.”
Hottovy’s lightbulb moment came several years ago while observing a family facilitator—a role supported by the Superintendents’ Plan—set up informal home meetings to get families registered for school. As a new principal, Hottovy had visited local businesses and passed out his card. Why not do the same with the Kindergarten families?
“We put our brains together and said ‘We know home visits are good practice to build trust with families … Why don’t we turn this into a porch visit?’ It just kind of took off from there,” he said.
Families get a heads-up about the voluntary visits at the beginning of summer and can opt out or come to the school instead to pick up a bag.
Most seem to appreciate the introduction and personal touch. Some parents may not have had positive experiences with their own schooling or assume that the only interaction they’ll have with the principal is when their child misbehaves.
“The way I think of it is bridging that gap,” Hottovy said. “If the family mentions getting ready to go to soccer practice, well, then I know that kid will play soccer. It’s good for that, to make those connections.”
Erin Duffy, the digital communications specialist at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. As a journalist, she spent more than five years covering education stories for daily newspapers.
Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at email@example.com.