Elementary school principal reaches out to Polk families

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LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) – When Principal Badonna Dardis sent fliers home with Carlton Palmore Elementary students offering to visit one family’s home each month, she didn’t expect to get as many invites as she did.

“I knew I’d get at least 12,” Dardis said.

She received 226 – more than half the school’s student population. That’s enough to keep her busy for more than 18 years.

“We may have to increase our visits to two visits a month,” said Dardis, who randomly selects invites from a large stack.

This is Dardis’ second year as principal at Carlton Palmore. She was principal at Auburndale Central Elementary for six years and, before that, she was a teacher at McKeel and Blake academies.

This is the first year she is doing home visits – an idea she said she came up with because she wanted to feel connected to the community and build trust with the families.

She avoids talking about school during her visits and instead focuses on the families’ stories.

“The typical home visit (before) was only conducted if we couldn’t reach a family for school business,” Dardis said. “We want to change the perception of home visits because we are a team when it comes to the education of a child.”

The O’Brien family, whom Dardis and Assistant Principal Nikki Jones visited Wednesday evening, appreciated the time they had with the school administrators and encouraged other families to invite them into their homes.

“People may think they don’t have much to share … that they’re just an average family, but everyone has a story,” Teresa O’Brien said. “We don’t always have time (when we visit the) school to share those stories, so this is a great opportunity.”

Part of the O’Briens’ story involves adoption.

Caedmon is Teresa and Kevin O’Brien’s biological child, and Stephan and Rakiyah are their adopted children. Caedmon, Stephan and Rakiyah are 10 years old and in the fifth grade at Carlton Palmore.

“I knew they were adopted,” Jones said. Stephan and Rakiyah are black, and Caedmon, Teresa and Kevin are white.

“But I didn’t know the story,” she said. “It’s interesting to know the dynamics of the family.”

Over taco bites Rakiyah helped her mom make, Dardis and Jones listened to how Caedmon, Stephan and their sister came to be siblings.

When Teresa O’Brien gave birth to Caedmon, “my body went out of whack and I had to have two surgeries,” she said. “I joked we would have to adopt. Then I got baby fever a year later and Kevin said let’s actually adopt.”

They adopted Stephan, who is from St. Petersburg and only 14 days older than Caedmon, through Heartland for Children in Bartow.

A year later, they wanted a girl.

They adopted Rakiyah, who is from Ft. Lauderdale and a couple months younger than her brothers, through the state.

“At first, when I learned she was the same age as the boys, I was like ‘no,'” Teresa O’Brien said.

But there are pros and cons to having three children who are all the same age, the parents said.

“They’re in the same grade all learning the same things at the same time,” Kevin O’Brien said.

“But when you screw up (parenting), there’s no child coming behind them that you can be like ‘OK I’ll fix that and do it right the next time,'” Teresa O’Brien said. “We all screw up together and say ‘OK let’s keep going.’ ”

The visit, which was scheduled for 30 minutes but lasted a little longer than an hour, included the children showing their administrators some of their hobbies and talents: Stephan played “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and the “Star Wars” theme song on the violin; Rakiyah did a back-hand spring she learned in gymnastics; and Caedmon shared a drawing he drew of a cat.

“These are things we don’t usually get to see in school,” Dardis said.

“This is about building trust and sometimes you have to go to the families to get that trust,” Dardis said following her visit with the O’Briens. “We built trust in there.”

Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd commended Dardis for her outreach effort.

“Any time administrators and staff reach out to our students and their parents, and visit families to assist is always wonderful,” Byrd said. “It keeps open communication between the principal and the families, and allows students to see that … it’s not always a bad instance, it could be good.

“It allows students and parents to build that trust with their administrators and the community to build that trust with the school,” she said.

Dardis and Jones have visited three families so far, and each family has been vastly different, they said.

At their first visit, they discovered the student’s father had been in an accident and wears a halo brace.

“We didn’t know that,” Jones said. “How would we?”

“We want to hear about their hardships,” Dardis added.

Their second visit was to a family who didn’t speak English. They spent an hour and a half with an interpreter learning about the family’s culture.

Dardis hopes the visits encourage parents and families to become involved at the school.

“Since the visits, we see the parents more often at the school and one family sent us in some yummy authentic tamales for lunch,” Dardis said. “We want to learn about different cultures, different socioeconomics – all the different families we have at Carlton Palmore.”

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