Real Schools – Waterside School
Waterside School – Innovation With Parent Engagement
By Rose Nisker
Waterside School was founded in 2001 with the goal to provide high-quality education to low-income students. When it first opened its doors, the Stamford, Connecticut independent school served 27 students. Waterside now serves over 150, operating primarily on charitable contributions as most families receive significant financial aid. The PK-5th Grade school provides rigorous academic training for students who might otherwise feed into the bleak statistics that Waterside indexes on its website– statistics reporting that low-income children typically enter kindergarten a full year and a half behind in language skills, and by fourth grade, 86% cannot read proficiently and 74% lack basic mathematical skills.
Waterside’s response to the statistics is stated simply and powerfully in the call for action found on its website: “The gaps in achievement and opportunity are clear and wide and the responsibility to bridge those gaps must be shared and immediate. Many things can wait. These children cannot.” Jody Visage, Waterside’s Head of School, says “We sought out the RULER approach to ensure that our students would be available for the learning that needs to occur each day if they are going to reach their potential.”
ENGAGING FAMILIES IN RULER – ASK THE EXPERTS
When Waterside was ready to introduce parents to the RULER Charter, the school enlisted the help of some highly qualified experts– its students. Some of these elementary school-aged “experts” had already created and revised classroom Charters for 3 years in a row at the Stamford, Connecticut independent school. While Waterside has an enthusiastic team of teachers and administrators who educate parents about RULER tools throughout the year, everyone agreed that the students were the best candidates to take the lead in creating family Charters at home.
For Waterside, the RULER Charter was already an essential part of life at school. Students and teachers check in weekly to revisit their Charter goals and assess the classroom emotional climate. Faculty and staff have their own Charter that is revised and updated every new school year. “We strive to make our Charters living, breathing documents that we all embody every day,” explains Head of School Jody Visage. “It’s not a stagnant old document that just hangs on the wall.” While home Charters seemed like a natural next step for Waterside’s community, getting every family to participate was no small feat.
“We’re very cognizant of the fact that all of our parents are very hardworking and some have multiple jobs,” says first grade teacher and RULER team member Caitlyn Bertoncin. “We’re keenly aware of the struggles they face and the demands on their time– we knew it might be a challenge to make the time to sit down and create a Charter” The school’s population is also very diverse culturally, Bertoncin points out. “We anticipated that given the many different languages spoken and different cultural norms, the Charters would vary greatly.”
Committed to making sure every family completed a Charter, Waterside teachers and administration made the assignment mandatory, like any other homework. The school sent out announcements well in advance of the due date, making sure parents knew that the Charter was an important opportunity to build deeper connections in their families and to enhance the continuum between home and school.
Classroom teachers spent several weeks preparing students on how to approach the task. “We really broke it down and walked through every step of what it would look like for the children to sit down with parents and talk about how they want to feel at home,” says Vanessa Landegger, a second grade teacher who is on the Waterside RULER team with Bertoncin. The teachers, along with school psychologist Dr. Agnes Sprouse, offered extra office hours in case any children had additional concerns given the sensitive nature of a family’s emotional homelife. “Everyone was being asked to take a pulse on the emotional climate of the home– not an easy task and one that requires an extremely open line of communication between the child and the parent,” explains Dr. Sprouse.
In the end, every single Waterside student completed a family Charter. All 150 of the children had conversations with their parents and families about how they want to feel together at home. The school enthusiastically celebrated the remarkable work of its families, hanging bulletin boards outside each classroom showcasing the Charters of every grade. The documents are in many forms, some printed out, others in the careful handwriting of a second-grader, all of them presenting thoughtful intentions for a positive home environment. Words like “loved,” “appreciated” and “understood” fill many of the pages, along with proactive plans on how to experience the desired qualities– “We will listen to each other and be kind. We will play, laugh and be together.”
Families were invited to come in and present the Charters in front of the whole school at Waterside’s morning assembly. “Even though they were nervous, you could see how proud the students were walking up there with their parents, and the whole room cheered them on,” recalls Visage. “It was poignant to see the children’s pride in presenting their family, and the parents’ heartfelt investment in the process, a process that asked them to be vulnerable and open before our community“.
One of Landegger’s second-graders presented two Charters with her “split” family– her parents are divorced and she spends her time between two homes. “I thought the student would read one Charter with her dad and one with her mom,” explains Landegger. Instead, both parents and their daughter read one Charter all together. “It was evident that the Charter was used to build emotional continuity across two homes”.
As Waterside enters a new year, the faculty and administrators are planning for the second round of the family Charter project, helping new families to create their Charter, and working with returning families to revisit and update their Charter so they remain current and alive in their homes. Waterside’s progress reports even include a section about how children are developing in using the RULER tools.
“I’m not pollyannaish about this work and I’m not saying everything is perfect now,” explains Visage. “But our students are more emotionally fluent and capable of self-regulation, there’s more time in the classroom available for instruction, and parents are talking about improved family climates at home and a reduction in yelling, crying and melt downs, for both kids AND adults.” Visage has been at Waterside for 11 years, and her steadfast commitment to RULER is grounded in the changes she’s seen since bringing in the Anchor Tools. “The choice to bring RULER to Waterside was both pragmatic and necessary– it’s not just a “nice” thing we decided to do on the side,” Visage says emphatically. “It’s highly effective in the service of our mission.”