Monday, September 12, 2016

Low-Hanging Fruit: Small Ways Schools Can Make Big Differences as the School Year Begins

After I sent my kids back to school last week and watched the steady stream of adorable “first day” Facebook posts, I began thinking about all of the little things that schools do, or don’t do, that make a huge difference for students and parents during the first weeks of school. I started compiling a list of my own based on personal experience as a parent and as an observer of a lot of different kinds of schools, public and private, over the years. I also surveyed my colleagues at CRPE for their ideas.

Notes from the Field graphic

Most of these ideas cost little to no money to implement. Some require an investment but are well worth the goodwill, trust, and lasting connections that result. Some might be impossible to implement in a current labor contract, but it might be worth bargaining to change the contract to allow them in the future. Some require teacher time on top of many other demands but may be eased with the help of technology, administrative support, volunteer time, or philanthropic support. 

Despite all of the potential barriers, successful schools invest in efforts like these because they help establish trust and a strong school culture for the entire year. To a very anxious student, or one with special needs, just having the opportunity to get to know new teachers a day or so before the official start of the school year can be huge. 

So, here is CRPE’s list of low-hanging fruit for easing “Back to School” pain. Other ideas…? 

Ease student stress: 

  • Give students time to see their schedules a few days before school starts, meet their teachers, or do walk-throughs with other kids at the school.
  • Have teachers invite especially anxious students to help them set up their classrooms (teachers get help, students build connections). 
  • Have teachers write to their incoming students (via parents) and just talk about the fun that’s going to be had, things to look forward to, and so on. 

Build school culture:

  • Ensure that anyone new to the school community has another family who is an established touch point for resources both inside and outside of school. 
  • Do home visits by a teacher (and possibly social worker). This is expensive and time consuming, but low-income schools say it’s invaluable. 
  • Make sure the principal introduces herself to families the first week, and walks classrooms and halls so students see her.
  • Ask every student to set an academic or other goal for the year and close out the year by celebrating goals met.  

Ensure parents have information they need to help support their student: 

  • Provide an online and printed version of the school calendar, typical daily schedule, and volunteer needs. 
  • Have all teachers send a personal email in the first month to communicate small but important details (how things are going, suggestions for activities parents can do at home to support progress). 
  • Have teachers post their syllabi and homework assignments online so parents can know what will be covered during the year (many teacher contracts forbid basic requirements like this).
  • Establish an advisor/mentor who keeps an eye on each student’s progress throughout their time at the school and acts as a parent liaison.

Set up kids with special needs for success:

  • Ensure that all parents have an opportunity to write a quick letter with guidance for new teachers introducing their child, explaining any successful past learning strategies, as well as positive qualities or personal interests that might help teachers connect and build an effective relationship.
  • Make sure new teachers have early access to the IEP goals and intervention strategies (often, the paperwork doesn’t get to teachers until October). 

Make life a bit easier on parents:  

  • Ask PTAs like this one to purchase basic supplies in bulk (and have district or wealthy PTAs supplement those with few resources). Parents often spend $50 to $60 per student on the long list of required classroom supplies like paper, tissues, disinfectant, etc. This is inefficient, and a potential hardship on low-income families. 
  • Provide electronic forms for field trips, designated pick-up people, allergies etc., so parents don’t have to navigate a time-consuming paper trail.
  • Let parents know which students at the school live in their neighborhood so they might coordinate play dates, carpools, etc.
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