Search form

Increase parent involvement with first day of school activities

Read about how schools across the nation -- in urban, rural, and suburban areas -- are breaking down barriers with parents and their communities by making the first day of school an exciting holiday with special activities that include everyone!

Typically, on the first day of school, parents drop off their children at the bus stop or the school playground. Maybe they get the kids as far as the classroom door. Then the school doors close and the parents leave. If they're lucky, the school will welcome them back a month or two later for a school-wide open house.

Terry Ehrich thought there must be a better way to begin the school year -- a way that might welcome parents, get them involved, and keep them involved. Ehrich thought the first day of school should be more like the Fourth of July -- but in this case, a celebration of education.

Terry Ehrich, publisher of Hemmings Motor News and the parent of five children, created the First Day Foundation to help schools organize their own First Day of School Holiday.

First day programs improves parent involvement

President Bill Clinton awards Terry Ehrich the President's Service Award for founding the First Day Foundation in 1999. Ehrich was one of 21 winners selected from more than 3,500 people nominated from across the nation.

During his interview with Education World, Ehrich didn't mention the President's Service Award he received. But he did mention the reward he gets knowing that his idea has helped increase parental involvement in nearly all the schools that hold some kind of First Day program. Educators who start the year by inviting parents to participate in First Day activities report substantial increases in parental involvement during the year, Ehrich said.

The concept of inviting parents to school on the very first day of the school year is growing in popularity. In 1997, only 11 schools held First Day Holiday activities. The next year, the number grew to 60 schools. In 1999, about 400 schools participated, with First Day Holidays being held at schools from throughout the nation. In 2000, about 2,000 schools nationwide to join in.

In order for the First Day Holiday to be successful, employers need to give parents some time off, Ehrich told Education World. He has been putting his money where his mouth is since 1995 by giving his own employees at Hemmings Motor News two days off, with pay, so they can visit their children's schools or volunteer at a school.

Welcoming intimidated parents

The First Day Holiday has many purposes. One of the program's goals is to involve parents who typically aren't involved in the schools. Parent attendance at school-sponsored events varies throughout the nation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics report "Parent Involvement in Children's Education: Efforts by Public Elementary Schools."

Most or all parents attend school open house events in 72 percent of schools that have a low concentration of poverty compared with only 28 percent of schools with a high poverty concentration. Schools with high minority enrollments also tend to have low parent attendance at school functions: About 30 percent of schools with high minority concentrations report most or all parents attend school functions, compared with about 63 percent of schools with low minority enrollments.

According to the 31st Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, the public believes that lack of parent involvement tops the list of obstacles facing education today. "Parents/lack of parent involvement" was listed as the second most important element to improving public schools; finances and funding headed the list.

"When we have been successful in bringing parents into the school, they tended to be white, middle class parents who had done well when they were students in school," Ehrich said. "We weren't seeing those who hadn't done well themselves. Those parents don't show up for a couple of reasons: One, they're uncomfortable, and, two, they don't feel qualified to play a part in their child's education. No one has ever taught them that to participate in your child's education doesn't have to mean teaching them algebra I."

Bilingual workshops break language barrier

A New York elementary school found that First Day Holiday programs could help break down language barriers. At the John F. Kennedy Magnet School in Port Chester, New York, a school with a high ratio of students who speak English as a second language, bilingual workshops were offered to parents on the first day of school.

After gathering parents in the school cafeteria for breakfast, the principal, teachers, and staff addressed them. Those who did not speak English wore earphones so they could listen to a bilingual specialists interpret what was being said.

Workshops were held after breakfast -- one in English and one in Spanish -- that explained strategies for helping students study at home, how to maintain parent-school communications, the school's rules, and the outcomes of absenteeism.

As a result of this First Day Holiday welcome, parent volunteerism and involvement in the school's PTO grew substantially.

Those who attended First Day festivities asked for more evening workshops and coaching sessions to help them with basic parenting skills, homework and study skills, English language arts, and reading strategies.

Parent involvement also rose at Buena Vista High School in Saginaw, Michigan, as a result of their First Day picnic. There were no speeches or fanfare. Students, parents, and staff attended an afternoon picnic on the school's football field, featuring hot dogs, hamburgers, music from the school band, and exhibitions from student clubs, such as the school's robotics team.

Parents learn about reading program

Kinsella School in Hartford, Connecticut, held First Day Holiday celebrations last September in part to explain to parents their role in their child's reading program. Kinsella School was beginning a new literacy program, Success for All, and the First Day Holiday gave teachers an opportunity to explain to parents their role in their children's reading success. The program requires that children read for 20 minutes each night, and parents need to sign off, said Greg Dowd, principal of Kinsella School.

"It was great to have parents in there to see a brand-new curriculum," Dowd told Education World. "It really meshed very nicely."

Not only did parents learn about the new reading program and how they could help their children learn to read better, they also became more involved in the school.

The best part is that opening day ran very smoothly with parents joining their children. "We had the best opening day I've ever participated in," Dowd, an educator for 23 years, said. "It was great!"

Businesses and community organizations help teachers and volunteers make Kinsella School's First Day Holiday a success. Evie Herrmann, director of Connecticut Parent Plus, learned about the First Day Holiday in a newspaper article. Dowd said Herrmann played a key role in making the First Day program a success at Kinsella School.

Herrmann secured donations of 1,000 backpacks and $5,100 in cash. Each student received a backpack with school supplies on that first day. Refreshments were also served to parents, there were door prizes, and the Hartford Public Library issued library cards to every family who attended First Day of School programs.

"I think the First Day concept is fabulous for getting parents and educators together right at the get-go, when everyone has a clean slate, before anyone is in trouble or any unpleasant phone calls have gone home," Herrmann told Education World.

At West Middle School, also in Hartford, typical attendance at PTO meetings was 5 to 15 parents. After the First Day of School event, 85 parents attended the first meeting and attendance continues to go up, Herrmann said.

Success breeds more success. Next year, 16 other Hartford schools are planning to welcome parents to First Day Holiday festivities. Some are planning a parent treasure hunt for the first day and another school is planning a parade, Herrmann said.

Parade starts the school year 

Students, teachers, parents, and volunteers of North Bennington (Vermont) Graded School parade through their village on the first day of school.

"I think it is an incredible, wonderful event," said Ernie Lafontaine, principal at North Bennington Graded School in North Bennington, Vermont, among one of the first schools that pioneered the First Day of School Holiday.

Children begin their first day of school by making banners with their classmates and parents. Then they march in a parade through town together, carrying banners and balloons behind a marching band. The festivities conclude with a picnic under pitched tents in the center of town. Parents and community members bring packed lunches.

The vast majority of parents attend the festivities -- about 80 to 90 percent -- Lafontaine estimates. Although the small town enjoys strong parent support, the First Day Holiday has also increased the number of volunteers from the community. "I think it really is the last link to bond the community and the school together," Lafontaine told Education World. It is also a great way to introduce new families to the community, he said.

"The beauty of this is that it tickles my ego in that my idea has caused people to have even better ideas," said Ehrich. "It was one of those rare opportunities to do good and to have fun."


Article by Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
Copyright © 2011, 2015 Education World


Updated 8/06/2015