Ages 6–10 | Parenting Tools | Elementary

Involved parents are key to school success

You can't find it on a shelf. It doesn't come packaged. And you can't fit it in a backpack. Parental involvement: It's so hugely important in a child's education -- and it's work. The good news? It pays.

"The most important benefit of parents' involvement is it increases the academic performance of the kids," says Susie Murphy, principal of Seattle's Beacon Hill Elementary School.

Murphy's school is a case in point. There, students speak 14 different languages and 44 percent are transitional bilingual. Several years ago, staff waged a campaign to embrace the school's parents, and it's paid off. Last year, 73 percent of fourth graders met the WASL standard for reading, versus 36 percent in 1998-1999.

Murphy says parents are the foundation for this kind of success, no matter what their backgrounds. Research bears this out. According to a 2002 Southwest Educational Development Laboratory study, students with involved parents are more likely to:

  • Earn higher grades and test scores.
  • Take more rigorous classes.
  • Pass classes, earn credits and progress in grade level.
  • Attend school regularly.
  • Have solid social skills, improve their behavior and adjust to schools' expectations.
  • Graduate and pursue post-secondary education.

"School is a three-legged stool," Murphy says. "It takes the families, the teachers and the children to make it work."

John Hickey, a father of two at Chloe Clark Elementary School in DuPont, agrees. He says his participation is more than appreciated -- it's expected. "I feel the justifiable expectation from the school that, without us, the kids can't succeed in school," he says.

Goals of involvement

Help teach. "Our purpose here is to educate children -- to make them readers and writers and to help them problem-solve with mathematical thinking," Murphy says. "It's critical that parents get involved in those things." To support this goal, parents can:

  • Create a rich home-learning environment through toys and games, creative activities, field trips, conversations and technology.
  • Stay up-to-date on study topics and homework. Check in daily and offer help.
  • Create a homework routine. John Hickey encourages his sons to play and relax before dinner, then do homework and read quietly -- every night. "They thrive on the routine and don't do well if we disrupt it," he says.
  • Attend parent-teacher conferences, and make the most of them. Bring a list of topics to discuss and a notepad for recording the teacher's comments, tips and concerns.
  • Exchange email addresses with the teacher and principal, and correspond that way. Email is fast, convenient and free.

Become a part of the school community. "I say to parents: Come in and be here," Murphy says. "Ask the questions. Volunteer, shelve books, work in the office, answer the phone, make coffee. Doing those kinds of things gets parents into the fabric of the school." She adds: "Giving doesn't have to be money. It can be time and work."

Ways parents can help:

  • Attend "Meet-the-Teacher Day" and other school functions.
  • Join parent groups such as PTA (Parent Teacher Association). "It's all about the kids and providing a positive experience in education, getting parents involved and supporting the staff and administration," says Jeana Lorbiecki, mother of two at Shoreline's Lake Forest Park Elementary School where she is PTA treasurer. "And it's about helping to fill in the gap financially through fundraising."
  • Volunteer to fill in where you're needed. For example, in the main office or the library.
  • Reach out to other parents. If you're an extrovert, try to engage others who are less apt to speak up or attend events.
  • Introverted? Try taking small steps toward getting involved.

What about busy work schedules? How can parents (including fathers) stay central in spite of them? "Email and ask questions," Murphy says. And optimize time after work. "There are a lot of things that happen in the evening hours: PTA, celebrations, read-a-thons, family literacy nights, family math nights," she notes. Murphy also touts the Web as a school hub: "Electronically, stay involved and know what's happening."

"I was a working mom," Murphy says. "I know staying involved is hard, but -- oh -- it's so important."

Natasha Petroff
lives and works in Snohomish, where she's currently selling butter braids for Riverview Elementary School PTA. $10/loaf.

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