With back-to-school enthusiasm high, one middle school strives to strengthen family connections

By Sarah Earle

Gilbert H. Hood Middle School PTSA president Stacy Williams and her daughter Bridget prepare for the 7th and 8th grade dance in the courtyard behind the school. Photo by Sarah Earle

A shaved ice truck in tropical shades flung its awnings open and the sugary sound of Doja Cat ricocheted off the brick walls of the courtyard behind Gilbert H. Hood Middle School in Derry as the first students arrived in twos and threes, in style ranging from t-shirts and Vans to long satin dresses. 

“Hey, Bestie.” “Hey, Bestie,” they greeted each other. 

Soon, a long line of 7th and 8th graders had formed in front of the folding table manned by Principal Kim Carpentino. 

Energy is rarely in short supply at a school dance, but to Carpentino, the energy of this new school year is special — and it extends beyond the school walls.

“I feel like people, right now that we’re back to school in person fulltime, are really excited, and I’ve got a lot more connection with families than I’ve had in a few years,” Carpentino said.

Research points to a strong link between family engagement and student outcomes, but fostering school-to-home ties is often a challenge. Remote learning re-wired some of those connections, cutting off some traditional channels while opening new ones. Thrust into a new role, some families developed stronger relationships with their schools. Others, overwhelmed or frustrated, drifted further away. 

“I think we had to find different, creative ways to communicate,” Carpentino said. 

Now, she and the rest of the school staff are striving to strengthen the connections they forged last year as well as build new ones before the back-to-school buzz wears off.

“We’re going to try to have more family events, and we’re trying to front load them to keep interest high,” said Carpentino, who is planning a color run and a family night of country line dancing and barbecue for early in the school year.

Several new families have joined the Parent Teacher Student Association this fall, said PTSA President Stacy Williams, who was setting up snacks for the dance. “We’ve definitely had more interest this year.” 

A member of the PTSA since her oldest son, now at Pinkerton Academy, was in kindergarten, Williams thinks it’s more important than ever to provide fun and enriching activities for young people. “It’s all about the kids,” she said. “Some of them don’t have the same opportunities, so we bring the opportunities to them.”

Focusing on family engagement is just one of the ways teachers and staff at Gilbert Hood are trying to foster student growth after a rocky year and a half. The school has used some of its federal relief funds to pay teachers to work on skill development with small groups of kids after school. The district is also doing a big push for workshop-style teaching, in which teachers deliver a mini lesson then break students into smaller groups based on their progress. 

“It takes some strategy on the part of the teacher to be thinking about the skills that you’re asking the kids to learn,” Carpentino said. 

Like many schools, Gilbert Hood is also enjoying the benefits of new technology purchased or utilized during remote learning. One big plus: With one-to-one technology, the school can complete mandatory state assessments in less than half the time it took in the past. “We used to complain about how much instructional time we were giving up for testing,” Carpentino said. “Now it only takes two days total for the entire school.”

About this series: This story is part of a series highlighting solutions, success stories, and best practices at schools around the state. If you have a story you’d like to share, contact Sarah Earle at s.earle@reachinghighernh.org