It used to be that open house night was held a few weeks into the school year. That special event was most parents' single opportunity to connect with their children's teachers. But today's school leaders understand that a strong home-school connection can have a direct impact on student achievement, so they have created many new and fun ways to forge a strong relationship between parents and teachers during the opening weeks of the new school year.
Some schools have moved open house to the week before school begins; then a separate back-to-school night is held during the first weeks of school. Back-to-school letters offer teachers an opportunity to ease students' jitters about the year ahead and to share their plans with parents. Welcome-back packets present practical information and news of ways parents can get more involved. Then there are scavenger hunts, trinkets, hot dog roasts, PowerPoint slide shows...
Members of Education World's "Principal Files" team recently took time to share the wide variety of ways in which they greet parents and welcome students during August and September in hopes of building a bond that will last the whole year through.
Even before school begins
It seems, if our P-Files team is an indicator, that the majority of schools start building bridges to parents and students long before the first day of school.
At Scott Johnson Elementary School in Huntsville, Texas, students and parents have an opportunity to meet teachers the day before school officially begins. An "open house" provides this opportunity to become a little familiar with the daily routine, said principal Beth Burt.
Further to the east, at Doctor's Inlet Elementary School in Middleburg, Florida, a local church organizes a special hot-dog social for new parents and students. The event, held several days before the start of school, provides new parents an opportunity to meet their child's teacher, tour the school, and be entertained by the church choir, principal Larry Davis told Education World. Then, the day before school starts, an orientation is held for all parents.
"We send out postcards a few days prior to the orientation," Davis explained. The postcards announce which teacher students will have and describe the orientation, which is open to students and parents. At the orientation, student patrols greet visitors and provide maps to the classrooms. "This is all very informal -- just a chance to say hello to the teacher," Davis added. A follow-up open house is scheduled for a couple of weeks later.
A hot dog roast is also on the day-before-school-starts agenda at Clinton (Michigan) Elementary School. The school's PTO sponsors the roast, said principal Marcia Wright. "In the past we have also run a scavenger hunt for new students," Wright continued. "Each child got a sheet with questions on it. They were teamed with veteran students who assisted them in finding things or locations around the school. At each destination, the new student got a signature from the staff person in charge of the area. The student also received a little prize such as a ruler, stickers, or pencils.
"The scavenger hunt was a fun way for new students to tour the school."
At South Anna Elementary School in Montpelier, Virginia, principal Doug Fiore and his staff hold an open house during the week before the start of school. "This is a non-structured, free exchange between families and staff members," Fiore explained. "We include students so they meet their teacher for the first time with their parents by their side." The PTA sets up tables so families can sign up for committees and purchase school spirit wear, Fiore added. A back-to-school night will be held about three weeks after school begins; that is the time when teachers present an overview of the year and their expectations.
During the summer months, as new families register students at Avery Elementary School in Webster Groves, Missouri, principal Lolli Haws takes time to give each student and family a personal tour of the school. "The tour gives kids a feel for the building, and parents hear about programs and get a sense of the school," Haws told Education World. "If I'm busy or out when new families register, the secretary sets up a time for them to return for a tour."
Then, two days before the start of school, a meet-the-teacher ice cream social is held on the front lawn of Avery Elementary. Teachers have their rooms ready, said Haws. This is a chance for students, parents, and teachers to meet face-to-face. Kids find their classrooms and even see their desks. "It's a very popular event," explained Haws. "It also helps keep curious and anxious kids and parents from dropping by at the school all during August. It gives teachers time to prepare their classrooms without the interruptions caused when kids and parents show up one by one."
At Weatherly Heights Elementary School in Huntsville, Alabama, a school-wide open house is set for the day before school opens; the open house gives students and parents a chance to meet the teacher. Students can bring in their school supplies and put them in their desks. That helps relieve some anxiety, and it helps students settle right in on the first day of school, said principal Teri Stokes. "The library, computer lab, and science lab are open too," added Stokes, "and the physical education department and school counselor are available."
An orientation for new students is held about a week before school begins at Gonic Elementary School in Rochester, New Hampshire. "We offer tours of the school," said principal Martha Wingate. "Representatives of our very active PTA meet and greet parents and answer questions from a parent's perspective. Curriculum materials are available for review. Refreshments are provided, and each student receives a Gonic Eagle pencil."
At Cedar Heights Junior High School in Port Orchard, Washington, connections with parents are forged months before school begins. "Parents begin receiving copies of our monthly newsletter in March," said principal Patricia Green. "In May, parents and students are invited to a so-this-is-junior-high night. Lots of questions are answered at that time.
"Finally," Green continued, "on the day before school starts, students in the year's incoming class are invited in for a half-day to meet their classmates and teachers, learn to navigate their new school, and generally become more comfortable with the environment that will be their home for the next three years."
Principal Marie Kostick conducts a new-student orientation during the weeks before school starts at Goodwyn Junior High School in Montgomery, Alabama. "This event is a huge success," said Kostick. "We send out flyers a couple weeks before the event, which provides parents an opportunity to purchase school uniforms and supplies and to become familiar with our school's expectations. We discuss first-day procedures, lockers, physical education clothing, attendance, and general school rules." In addition, at the orientation
In Port Orange, Florida, at Silver Sands Middle School, principal Les Potter greets new sixth graders to the school for an event called WEB, short for Welcome, EveryBody. The event -- which is held from 8:30 to noon several days before the beginning of school -- involves the school guidance counselors, teachers, and some eighth-grade students at the school. The new students already visited school the previous spring, said Potter, "but we find the WEB program to be much more effective in introducing the students to the school.
"The event," Potter explained, "gives sixth graders -- who are entering Silver Sands from eight feeder schools -- a chance to bond with one another, learn about the nuances of middle school, connect with some upperclassmen, take campus tours, and learn about clubs and activity offerings. It also gives teachers, counselors, and kids a chance to talk about things such as peer pressure, making friends, and good study habits."
At North Canton Hoover High School in North Canton, Ohio, "we have a student-parent night for all new students two evenings before school begins," principal Tony Pallija told Education World. "We broadcast information about the event on our Web site, but we also send a special invitation to all new students and parents."
Principals and counselors are available at the orientation so parents and students can tour the building and ask questions. "It makes for a long day, but it is well worth the time to make new parents and students feel comfortable," added Pallija.
Letters and web site announcements too
Letters and Web sites serve as simple and friendly platforms for reaching out to build home-school connections in the days before the first bell rings. Larry Davis uses both of those tools at Doctor's Inlet Elementary School. Parents receive letters from the school's parent organization and the school. The school's Web site also carries welcoming information and continuous updates about upcoming events.
Principal Lolli Haws sends a personal letter to each child during the first week of August. The letter tells who the child's new teacher will be. "I write the letter in a newsy, personal way," explained Haws. "The letter tells about changes around the building, what new things students might expect to see, and, of course, I use the letter to give the old push to start reading, writing, and reviewing math facts.
"Students look forward to the letter," Haws said. "The letter is personally addressed to them. That way, it starts to build excitement about going back to school.
"In that letter, I also ask parents to write a letter to their child's teacher," she added. "That gives parents a chance to tell their child's new teacher everything they want him or her to know; they should feel confident that the teacher will read that letter and 'know' their child when school starts. It helps anxious parents feel better, which always helps the kids be less anxious and more excited about a new year."
At Cedar Heights Junior High, teachers send welcoming letters to each of their students. In those letters, teachers explain the focus of their classes and their behavior expectations, said Patricia Green.
The Web site for South Anna Elementary includes a slide presentation of highlights from the previous school year, said principal Doug Fiore.
The Web site for Alexandria (Louisiana) Magnet Middle School for Math and Science shares an up-to-date agenda for the upcoming school sessions and includes information about supplies students should have, orientation dates, open house, and new employees. "It's like a newsletter, only it's on the Web," said principal Marguerite McNeely.
Making opening day a special day
On the first day of school at Gonic Elementary, students and parents mingle on the playgrounds. Friends gather and parents run around with cameras snapping pictures. Student council members carry around big signs; each sign has a teacher's name and grade printed on it. "We end up having quite a parade," said principal Martha Wingate. "We gather the lines and proceed to our multi-purpose room for a short welcoming assembly." When students head off to their classes, parents are invited to join in a coffee hour in the library.
While the coffee hour is going on, Wingate wanders through the classrooms of the youngest students. "That way, I can accurately report to parents that all is well and no one is crying," she said. "That really seems to help reduce stress levels."
On the first day, teachers at Gonic send home a welcome-back gift from the PTA. The gift -- a magnet with the school calendar on it, a Gonic Eagle keychain, or something similar -- is included in a packet that has the school handbook, emergency forms, and lots of other information.
The first day of school at Gunther School in North Bellmore, New York, is a special and busy one for principal Larry Anderson. "I work with the PTA as they host a welcome-back tea," Anderson told Education World. This is an informal gathering at which Anderson provides an overview of new developments at the school -- new staff, new curriculum initiatives, facility upgrades, and new programs and resources. Parents have a chance to ask questions about school procedures, routines, and policies.
"Typically, 50 to 100 parents show up," Anderson noted. "It's mostly an opportunity to meet new families and a chance for 'old-timers' to catch up, and the PTA uses the occasion to recruit parents for various committees and activities."
On day two and beyond
On the days after the first day of school, parents of students at South Anna Elementary are likely to see principal Doug Fiore riding the school bus. "That is important," said Fiore, "because our school takes in a large area. I ride each bus once during the first month of school. I get to see where students live, and doing this gives families an opportunity to see me in their neighborhoods."
During the first two weeks of school, principal Marcia Wright sets aside time to have a meet-the-principal lunch with all the new students at Clinton Elementary School. "That is a nice way to get to know the kids who are new," Wright told Education World. "The school counselor attends that lunch with me. We have a state map on the wall so the kids can point out where they moved from; if they moved from out of state we find the location on a U.S. map."
Four days into the new school year, the staff and families of Harriet Gifford Elementary School in Elgin, Illinois, gather for a back-to-school family picnic and open house. The picnic is co-sponsored by two local business partners. Families enjoy grilled hamburgers and hot dogs and roasted corn. During the event, time is set aside so children can take their parents to their classrooms to meet their teachers.
"Last year, more than 400 people attended the event," principal Joe Corcoran told Education World.
On the second day of school at Avery Elementary, principal Lolli Haws, the school counselor, and the PTO hold a reception and orientation for parents new to the school. "This gives parents a chance to know what to expect, hear about our school's goals, and get those questions answered that new parents always seem to have." During the second week of school, an open house is held so parents and teachers can talk about curriculum, homework expectations, processes, and practices. Finally, added Haws, at the end of September, the PTO's huge Fall Festival is attended by hundreds of community and family members.
On open house night at Alexandria Middle Magnet School, the staff presents special lessons that illustrate technology applications or special training they have completed, said Marguerite McNeely.
More welcoming touches
One of the best welcoming ideas principal Betty Peltier has seen comes from a veteran teacher on her staff at Southdown Elementary School in Houma, Louisiana. "She takes time to call every student's parent after the first days of school," said Peltier. "She simply introduces herself and emphasizes that she wants the parents to feel free to call her at any time. She also makes sure to say something very nice about each student.
"True, it takes her some time to make the calls, but she feels it is time very well spent," said Peltier, adding, "Would you be surprised if I told you she has all the parents on her side for the rest of the year?"
Special back-to-school events are one way to make parents feel welcome, but it is very important that the school have a welcoming atmosphere every day of the school year, added Doug Fiore. The entrance to South Anna Elementary has benches for people to sit on, cheerful student artwork on display, a big welcome banner, and a friendly office staff. "These are all things that help create an atmosphere that says we're glad to have visitors and volunteers."
Each year, the teachers at Weatherly Heights Elementary provide something special to liven up the hallways in their school. "Everybody on the staff has an information sheet or some special writing that appears with their picture. We make these poster size," said Teri Stokes. This year, Avery Elementary is celebrating its 40th birthday so each teacher wrote a short piece to share "What I was doing 40 years ago" or, in the case of young staff members, "What I plan to be doing 40 years from now." Lots of children and visitors pause to read the posters.
And don't forget to have a special welcome for new staff members, reminds Patricia Green. "I do a special summer mailing to new staff," said Green. "That mailing includes answers to commonly asked questions -- What are the school colors? Is there a TV/VCR in my classroom? How do I make copies? How do I access e-mail at school? -- and tips about some of the most important things for them to consider before the first day of school.
"And remember to welcome back your 'old-timers' to a new school year with some little bits of sunshine for their classrooms," she added. "They also need motivators and re-enforcers for the busy year ahead of them."
Don't miss these Ed World back-to-school resources for busy teachers and administrators: