Families & the Community

First Things First

By Linda Jacobson — September 06, 2000 10 min read
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Many schools are turning the first day of school into a special occasion that involves parents as much as students.

Days before school started this year, Ross Luna practiced his locker combination at home, fretting about whether five minutes would be enough time to get to his next class on the spread-out, 17-acre campus of his new school. “Teachers forget what it’s like for these kids,” says his mother, Linda Luna. “They’re terrified.”

But when the first day of the 2000-01 school year arrived, the newly minted 7th grader didn’t have to face the unknown by himself.

His mother was among hundreds of parents who crowded into the cafeteria of Washington Middle School here for what has become a new approach to the opening day of school. For the first day of classes, Aug. 23, all 37 schools in this central California community invited parents to visit classrooms, meet teachers, socialize with one another, and just share the day with their children in a fun and relaxed way.

Turning the first day of school into a special occasion that involves parents as much as students is an idea that is catching on in a growing number of communities around the country.

Increasingly, they are starting off the year with “first-day holidays,” as the Vermont-based First Day Foundation refers to them, and encouraging employers to give parents the time off to attend. .

First-day get-acquainted events can help send the message that student success is a shared responsibility.

Setting aside the first day of school for get-acquainted events sends the message that student success is a shared responsibility, says foundation President Terry Ehrich. A magazine publisher, Ehrich persuaded his own town of Bennington, Vt., to start the tradition with 11 schools in 1997, and has been campaigning to spread the idea ever since.

“You can’t play the game unless you have a kickoff, and what better time than the first day of school,” says Ehrich, who now spends about a third of his time running the foundation. “Then it’s up to the teachers and the parents to keep the ball in play.”

His message is being well received by schools, districts, and city leaders across the country. He was hoping to see at least 2,000 schools participate this year, and he’s sure he’s exceeded that goal.

In Chicago alone, 900 public and independent schools participated in first-day activities. Phillip Jackson, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s chief for education, estimates that more than 225,000 parents in the 431,000-student district joined their children at school on Aug. 22.

‘If education is the most important thing we do, [the first day of school] ought to be the most important day in our civic calendar.’

Bill Purcell,
Mayor of Nashville, Tenn.

First-day events at the schools in Nashville, Tenn., on Aug. 17 spilled over into the “Mayor’s First Day Festival” at a downtown arena. Roughly 10,000 people gathered during the early-evening hours to play educational games, pick up free school supplies, and set a positive tone for the new academic year.

“It was the best day I’ve had as mayor, and the best day I’ve had as a parent,” says Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, whose daughter started 7th grade this year. “If education is the most important thing we do, [the first day of school] ought to be the most important day in our civic calendar.”

The same theme is echoed in the U.S. Department of Education’s America Goes Back to School campaign. Started in 1995 by Secretary Richard W. Riley—who himself attended the festivities in Chicago this year—the campaign aims to make the back-to-school weeks a time for building partnerships with students’ families and other members of the community. Schools are encouraged to organize their events around a particular goal, such as expanding after-school programs or modernizing their buildings.

At Washington Middle School here in Salinas, parents gathered for an orientation and a chance to ask questions and meet other parents. Down the street at University Park Elementary School, Principal Mary Randall gave parents a few writing assignments: paragraphs about their favorite school memories, notes to their children’s teachers with goals for the year. First-day activities throughout the country have also included parades, pep rallies, and picnics.

Traditionally, educators have wanted the first day of school to be “the most quiet and unobtrusive day in the whole year,” says Bob Rice, the president of the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce and the community leader who brought the idea of a first-day celebration to California’s central coast. “We’re trying to turn that around 180 degrees.”

Open houses held a few weeks after school starts can be too late for some struggling students.

Schools typically hold back-to-school events a few weeks after the academic year has begun, usually as an evening open house. But for a child who is struggling in class or is already getting in trouble, that can be too late, Ehrich argues.

If the parents become acquainted with the child’s teacher the first day, he says, that person will become “more than just a signature on a warning slip.”

While first-day activities are an opportunity to have fun, they also need to be part of a broad and continuing program for parent and community involvement, says Joyce L. Epstein, the director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“Creating a welcoming environment is step one on a pathway of many steps,” Epstein says.

In the Salinas schools, where more than half the students are members of minority groups, and many come from migrant families who work in the area’s flourishing agricultural industry, it also means accommodating parents who don’t speak English.

During her presentation at University Park Elementary, Randall made smooth transitions from English to Spanish to make sure she was being understood. She wanted everyone to know that the school has a separate parent club for Spanish-speaking parents who do not yet feel comfortable participating in the regular parent-teacher group.

Richard Martinez, a parent who attended the lunchtime event at Washington Middle School, said he would be more likely to volunteer and stay involved because of the friendly atmosphere on the first day.

“It brings the community together, too,” he says. “If you need someone to help you change a tire, you can say, ‘Hey, I saw you at the school thing.’”

Setting aside the first day of school as a time for celebration goes beyond just getting students, teachers, and parents in sync.

By calling the day a holiday, the First Day Foundation also challenges employers to go beyond traditional ways of supporting schools—such as donating supplies or allowing students to tour their businesses—by giving employees time away from work to visit their children’s schools. Ehrich, who publishes an antique-car magazine called Hemmings Motor News, gave his own employees time off for school-related events before organizing the foundation.

Supporters of first-day holidays are challenging employers to pitch by giving employees time off to visit their children’s schools.

“When employers make that time available, even if it’s unpaid or flex time, it makes a very strong statement that this is important,” he says. “Here in Vermont, nobody goes to work on the first day of deer season. I would think the first day of school is at least as important.”

In Salinas, which has four separate school districts, some business leaders were cautious about the idea when it was introduced last year, Rice of the chamber of commerce says. But this time, more enthusiasm was evident. At a recent Rotary Club meeting, 39 companies said they planned to participate.

“It’s important for companies to recognize that their employees have a parental responsibility to their kids,” Rice says.

Allowing employees time to visit their children’s schools while in session, to attend parent-teacher conferences, or to volunteer in the classroom, for example, is an idea that has been embraced by many family-conscious state legislatures.

According to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, several states have passed laws allowing public-sector employees to take a few hours of paid or unpaid leave each month to attend events at school, and have strongly encouraged private-sector employers to adopt similar policies.

But many companies don’t need a nudge from the government.

“As a trend, businesses are really looking at ways to provide flexibility for their employees,” says Debbie Phillips, a senior consultant at WFD, an international management-consulting business based in Watertown, Mass.

Since Ehrich got involved in this effort, he has learned that sometimes those who put up the most resistance are educators themselves.

“They think of parent involvement as a parent who has read a book about being an advocate for their child and comes blaring in every time Johnny stubs his academic toe,” Ehrich says.

In some cases, those who put up the most resistance to increased parental involvement are the educators themselves.

His own inspiration came from his experience as a divorced father who did not live in the same town as his two daughters. When he asked for an appointment with their teachers, he says, their first response was, “What’s the matter?”

At Washington Middle School, most teachers followed a regular schedule on opening day and allowed parents to join their afternoon classes. But a few teachers also came outside to join the festivities and to grab whatever was left in the lunch line after the parents and 1,435 7th and 8th graders had eaten.

“I think it’s just great,” Trinidad Fuentes, an English-as-a-second-language teacher, says about the day. “A lot of times, we don’t get to see parents.”

While they have been inspired by Terry Ehrich and the First Day Foundation’s materials, some schools have found that opening the door to parents on the first day of school—or even during the first week—just doesn’t work for them.

“Our teachers collaboratively decide on important issues, and it was their decision not to do that again,” says Timothy D. Schirak, the principal of the 470-student Wea Ridge Elementary School in Lafayette, Ind.

Some schools have found that first-day events just don’t work for them.

When the school opened last year, all the parents were invited in on the initial Friday after classes started. Each grade level concentrated on a different topic: The 1st graders did activities involving pigs, for example, while the 3rd graders held a “math and munch” time.

But this year, to keep things more manageable, the school held an open house on Aug. 14, the day before school started. Parents were able to visit the classrooms, deposit money into their children’s lunch accounts, and handle other tasks for the school year.

“Just to get everybody settled during that week is a challenge,” Schirak says.

Nonetheless, the school is taking away a few lessons from last year’s experience.

Last year, for their first-day activity, Wea Ridge’s 5th grade classes began a project on the states. Schirak said he learned that it’s wise to invite parents into the school each time students get started on a long-term project. That way, both parents and students are aware of the teacher’s expectations.

Administrators at schools that have held a first-day holiday have learned that the events can work at any grade level, as long as educators remember that relationships between parents and children change as they move into middle and high school.

“Kids spend a lot of their elementary school years begging their parents to volunteer for field trips and come to school plays,” says Patrick D. Burke, an assistant principal at South Burlington (Vt.) High School. “They spend a lot of middle school telling their parents to stay as far away as possible. In high school, kids are reconnecting with their parents.”

Middle and high school students are often less than thrilled about having their parents at school—but there are benefits.

Burke says he adopted a “together but separate” strategy on the first day that meets the needs of both parents and students. While students are meeting their new teachers, parents attend smaller group sessions where they learn about the school’s history, hear about efforts to prevent drug and alcohol use, and find out ways to volunteer.

Naturally, many students at Washington Middle on this year’s opening day were doing their best to avoid their parents. Erin Bassi, a new 7th grader, says she was glad her parents took time to attend.

“I just didn’t want to sit by them at lunch,” she says.

But Ross Luna thought it might come in handy to have his mother nearby. She’s a math teacher, after all.

“Are you going to sixth period with me?” he asked her. “You can give me the answers if I have homework.”

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