The first meeting between kindergarten teacher Delores Zulian and one of her new students, Richard Sellner, went the same way as any meeting between an adult and an active 5-year-old.
Zulian greeted Richard. Richard screamed "Aauugh!" and, laughing at the same time, made a beeline dash for his bedroom.
Within minutes, however, the ice was broken. Richard (who announced he no longer wants to be called "Dickie" when he makes his momentous transition to school) showed Zulian his Pokemon cards, his in-line skates, his arts and crafts project, his helmet, his penny and his toy pistol. By the end of the visit, Richard was showing off his climbing skills.
"Watch this, Ms. Zulian!" he said, kneeling on the arm of a love seat.
Richard's shift from apprehension to trust was just what Zulian was hoping for. For the last seven years, she and colleagues Lynda Sova and Sue Tomsko--all teachers at Marumsco Hills Elementary School in Woodbridge--have made a point to visit the homes of each of their students before school starts.
Zulian and Sova teach kindergarten and will have about 75 students between them this year. Tomsko teaches orthopedically disabled students of all grade levels. All began doing home visits to follow in the footsteps of two other teachers, no longer at the school, who heard about the value of home visits in other districts.
"The stronger beginning you have, the stronger a student you'll be," said Zulian, who scheduled 15 visits Thursday. This year will mark her seventh at Marumsco Hills.
Many teachers make efforts to develop a personal relationship with their students and parents. But the efforts of the Marumsco Hills teachers to meet parents on their own turf, using their own time, appear to be unusual.
"It is not a normal practice, but it is an excellent one," said Mary McLaurin, a coordinator of staff development for Prince William County teachers.
Marumsco Hills Principal Amy Jordan, who joined the school in May but has more than 20 years of experience in Prince William, said the home visit program was new to her.
"This is just a wonderful way to decrease the anxiety on the parents and the kids," Jordan said. A home visit forges an unusual bond, she said. "It's something you have in common with just that child."
During the home visit, the teachers ask about the children's habits, whether they like to read or do art, if they can write and recognize their own printed name. At the same time, the parents are able to explain little personality quirks to watch out for.
The personal attention can be even more important for the students at Marumsco Hills, which include many military families new to Prince William and a sizable percentage of students who don't speak English at home.
Sova said she tries to visit families of her Spanish-speaking students with her room assistant, who can serve as a translator. "It just makes it easier for the parents and the kids," said Sova, who is starting her sixth year at Marumsco Hills.
Tomsko visits the home of students new to the school, and made two home visits the week before classes. Parents of youngsters with disabilities can be even more worried as their children make the transition to public school, she said.
"If I go to the home, I'm kind of on their territory. They're apt to offer me more information without me having to ask for it, and then they can ask me questions," Tomsko said. "It really reassures them."
The parents on the receiving end of visits are sometimes surprised to get a call from the teacher but appreciate the attention.
"It made me feel so much more comfortable with sending them off," said Lisa Bissell, who has had two visits: one last year for son Dustin, 6, and one this year for Cory, 5. "[Zulian] relieved a lot of my fears."
Jean Trochanowski's son Derek, 5, is also starting in Zulian's class. "It was nice to be able to talk without having other parents fighting for attention," she said.
Debbie Sellner, Richard's mom, said she, too, was impressed with the visit. Her daughter, Jessica Lynn, 7, got a visit from Zulian two years ago, when she started kindergarten.
"I had fun in your class; I want to go back," said Jessica Lynn. "Do some kids have to go to school to meet their teachers?"
CAPTION: Maria DeLorenzo helps son Charles, 5, get acquainted with his new teacher, Delores Zulian, at Marumsco Hills Elementary in Woodbridge. Zulian makes a point of visiting her students at their homes before school starts.
CAPTION: Kindergarten teacher Delores Zulian visits with Cory Gray, 5, one of her new students at Marumsco Hills Elementary.