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Kids playing at science table

Janiyah Denton, left, and Valdimir Jimenez play at the science table in their 4K classroom at Falk Elementary School. The Madison School District's 4K program is diverse -- last year its students' race/ethnicity was 43 percent white, 16 percent black, 22 percent Latino, 10 percent Asian and 10 percent other, as well as 45 percent low-income, 37 percent English language learners and 7 percent with a disability. Enrollment has fluctuated between 1,700 to 2,100 students annually.

This summer, about 100 Madison families with kids entering kindergarten will get home visits from teachers in an experimental effort to build relationships.

Beth Vaade, a program evaluation specialist with the Madison School District and co-director of the Madison Education Partnership, said the hope is to forge a bond with families so when kids go from 4-year-old kindergarten to 5-year-old classes “on that first day, they’re feeling like this is a safe place, this is a place that cares about me, and a place that I want to be part of.”

The partnership is a research effort between the district, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers and community members that aims to improve educational outcomes. Also leading the project is Eric Grodsky, a professor of sociology and educational policy studies at UW-Madison.

The project will involve two summer home visits from 11 teacher volunteers from seven Madison grade schools — the district wouldn’t disclose which schools. The teachers will look at the “cultural and intellectual resources” in the home and try to relate those resources to children’s experiences in the classroom.

“Getting a kid to engage and get excited about the work is really the first thing you have to do to then start building on those higher academic and social, emotional learning outcomes,” Vaade said.

The project chooses the families at random to include income and educational levels that represent the district as a whole. But Grodsky doesn’t expect the benefits to affect everyone equally.

“We imagine that less-advantaged families, families that have had more difficult experiences with education in the past are going to be more likely to benefit from this kind of outreach,” he said.

The research will hopefully help the district in its effort to reduce achievement gaps, helping minority kids and kids who speak English as a second language catch up with their white counterparts. The district recently released statistics showing that some gains had been made over the past five years, but said that much more needs to be done.

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It’s also consistent with the district’s efforts to support low-income families and families of color, which include a growing community school program, which provides support to families to remove obstacles to learning.

Grodsky said the project doesn't provide resources to families. But it will hopefully make parents more comfortable with communicating with teachers and school officials to advocate for their kids, and make teachers more receptive to families when they reach out.

“Let’s take me,” he said. “I’m pretty comfortable calling a teacher. I’m pretty comfortable calling a principal and saying this is what my kid needs and advocate for my kid. I can understand when teachers and administrators reach out to me, and I’m not particularly shy about responding because they’re the people I went to school with, they’re my neighbors, they’re my friends. That’s not true for a lot of families in our district.”

Vaade said the teachers who volunteered played a key role in deciding how the project would work.

“Teachers are really very free to structure these interactions however they think will best serve the purpose of getting to know the families and getting an appreciation of the resources in the home,” she said.

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.