Most grade-school kids start the first day of school the same way: class rules, arithmetic, language-arts, maybe some science and art.

But in most Bakersfield City School District classrooms, that wasn’t the case.

Teachers are spending their first three days focusing on relationship-building and getting to know their students. It’s part of a new district-wide initiative to focus on the social and emotional aspects of learning built on this foundation: kids learn better from someone they like and trust.

“There are basic needs kids and people need to be successful, and sometimes we need to build up the skills in order to function before we get to learning content,” Tim Fulenwider, BCSD’s director of instructional support services, said Wednesday, students’ first day back in school.

The new initiative is driven by survey results district officials weren’t happy with, Fulenwider said.

Roughly 83 percent of students said they felt the teachers and other adults at school cared about them all or most of the time, with the remaining 17 percent saying they either felt that way some of the time, or none of the time.

So administrators and teachers spent the summer working on exercises to bridge the gap.

When the pint-sized students in Leighann Milazzo’s fourth-grade class walked through the door Wednesday, they were greeted with a smile and a handshake.

“Good morning, friend. What’s your name?” she asked Alessa, then Marcus, and then Elvis.

The point of the exercise, known as “Four at the Door,” requires teachers to make eye contact with students, shake their hands, engage them conversationally and greet them with a smile.

But even before that, Milazzo — a fourth-year teacher at Leo G. Pauly Elementary School — could recognize her students and knew some by name from interactions she had with them on the playground.

“They’ve been together their entire career, but there’s a lot to worry about,” Milazzo said of her students. “Who am I going to sit next to? Who’s going to be in my class? Will my teacher be mean?”

She tried to dispel those worries in the first hour, a beaming smile on her face as she shared bits about her life with the students. It’s her fourth year at Pauly; she likes to bake; her favorite place is the beach; she has a 5-year-old daughter.

“She started kindergarten today. Do you remember when you started kindergarten?”

That got kids excited, reminiscing about their very first days of school five years ago.

Then she reminded them that it was her first day, too.

“I’m excited and nervous, just like you,” she told them.

One of the mainstays of the social and emotional learning focus? The circle.

After sharing with the kids, she assembled students into a circle and had them share about themselves, but saved anything probing for another day.

For Day 1, they focused on names, number of years at Pauly Elementary, and what they hope to learn this year.

“We’re a family. We have to take care of each other and be kind to each other, but we also have to get to know each other, too,” Milazzo told her students before they went around the room to share.

Kids said over and over that they looked forward to getting good grades, or learning new things, or maybe helping others. Later in the year, however, once kids become more comfortable with each other, they could open up, Fulenwider said.

The questions would also delve deeper, Fulenwider said.

To give teachers an idea, the district produced a moving video it released to teachers before the start of the year that featured students sharing what they wanted teachers to know about them.

Some said they wished their teacher knew how to spell their name, or that they preferred working alone, but others opened up more. One student said he felt suicidal. Another said he didn’t want to live with his dad while his parents were weathering a divorce. Another shared that he didn’t sleep well at home because living arrangements forced him to bed down on the floor.

“And this little fella is asked to come to school every day,” Dolores Stiva, a BCSD teacher, said in the video. “I think we take some things for granted.”

The idea was to give teachers an idea of the struggles students face in an inner-city school district, not through far-away examples or hypotheticals, but by going straight to the source, said Irma Cervantes, BCSD’s communications manager.

“This has our kids in it talking about real things they wish their teacher knew,” Cervantes said.

As the school year continues, district leaders are encouraging teachers to ask their students what they wish their teachers knew as a way to open a dialogue and provide help.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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