WAPS teachers, administrators focus on increasing family engagement in 2021-22

Family STEM Night 2000

WAPS teachers engage with students and families at Family STEM Night in March of 2000. 

Teachers and administrators at Winona Area Public Schools are making one thing abundantly clear as planning begins for the 2021-22 school year:

They want more opportunities to engage with students and families. 

To that end, the Calendar Committee developed a new way to offer parent-teacher conferences at all grade levels for the 2021-22 school year. That includes back-to-school conferences at the elementary level, as well as flexible conference windows and formats at other times of the year for all levels to remove barriers and personalize the experience based on the needs of each student or family. 

The calendar was presented to the WAPS school board at its meeting Thursday, Feb. 4. 

“The important piece for us was how do we get more students and families into the buildings,” said WSHS Principal Mark Anderson, chair of the Calendar Committee. “The more opportunities we have to get parents into the building, the more opportunities we have to build relationships with them.”

Some of the more drastic changes will happen at the elementary level with the introduction of back-to-school conferences on Thursday, Sept. 2 and Tuesday, Sept. 7 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The first day of school for elementary students in Grades K-4 will be Wednesday, Sept. 8. 

Teachers share information and expectations about their classroom and the school, and give families an opportunity to ask questions or share information about the student. This new format, teachers say, will offer a more personalized and confidential experience for families and students.

“It’s really hard to give families that 1-on-1 time (during a typical open house),” said Kelly Allington, a committee member and kindergarten teacher at Washington-Kosciusko. “Families can share things with teachers, things they wouldn’t want to share in a room full of other families.”

The back-to-school conferences will also provide an opportunity for teachers to build relationships with families earlier in the year than normally possible, and they can do some general testing with the student immediately to see if any early interventions are needed.

Fall conferences would be held a little later than normal (Nov. 19 during the school day and Nov. 22 from 2:30 to 6 p.m.), then the spring conferences would be held in a two-week window in late March and early April. 

Similar conference windows will also take place at the middle school and the high school in addition to other firm dates throughout the year. 

At the middle school, conferences will take place from 7:30-8:30 a.m. and 4-6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 14 and Monday, Oct. 18 in addition to a conference by appointment window from Jan. 31 to Feb. 11. 

At the high school and Winona Area Learning Center, conferences will take place on Oct. 7 from 7:30-8:30 a.m. and 4-6:30 p.m. as well as by appointment from Nov. 29 through Dec. 10. There will also be registration conferences held from 4-7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 17 and Thursday, Feb. 24. 

“We might have families who choose to come in during those times, but it might be easier to meet with them when they are sitting at their own dining room table via a Zoom or a Google Meet or a phone call,” said Scott Halverson, a high school math teacher. “The idea is that we are going to meet with them when they are available on their terms, and I really think that is going to increase engagement.”

This will also help families who do not have access to transportation or child care be able to participate more in their student’s education. 

“As a parent, I would appreciate to be able to meet in this form,” board member Stephanie Smith. “It was actually something I considered bringing up myself, but you guys have already taken those steps.”

The 2021-22 calendar will come back to the board at its next meeting for approval. Two calendars were presented, one with a spring break and one without. A survey was sent to students, staff and families as to which calendar they preferred, and approximately 70 percent of the people who responded voted for the calendar with a spring break.