Any school principal can tell you how important the first week of school is. Those hectic few days, so full of excitement and promise, set the tone for the rest of the year. If the school is in chaos and parents have trouble finding their kids’ classrooms, that first impression will be hard to overcome. But if the first week runs smoothly, parents will be smiling in the pickup line on Friday afternoon. The new school year will be officially off to a great start.

For a parent group, the first week is a key time to make a positive impression. Even if your PTO or PTA has been active for a long time, it’s important to start each year with fresh energy and enthusiasm. You can provide support to parents, teachers, staff, and students while building involvement and creating a positive image of your group.

“We provide a luncheon or breakfast on the first day back to school for teachers,” says Jennifer Petrino, PTO secretary at Odyssey Charter School in Newnan, Ga. “It becomes a nice time for them to reconnect with each other after the summer. Plus, teachers always love it when you feed them!”

The Odyssey PTO also has a back-to-school event, which ultimately became a Groundbreaking Tailgate Party, a nod to the school’s theme, “Building a Better Tomorrow.” The PTA provides hot dogs, and everyone brings their own chips, drinks, and sides. The event is held on a field. Some families have a picnic and others tailgate with their vehicles.

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Let’s Party

A pizza party, movie night, or skating party can give families a chance to socialize, catch up, and get energized about the upcoming year.

It may seem daunting to throw a party during the first week of school. But many groups do it with great success. Others choose to have their back-to-school event the second or third week of school. Whether it’s frozen treats on the playground or a barbecue with all the fixings, a welcome back party gives families a chance to relax, mingle, and find out what’s in store.

The newly formed Ontario Primary & Elementary PTO in Ontario Center, N.Y., wanted to make an impression, so volunteers decided to hold a Back-to-School Bash to demonstrate the PTO’s commitment to improve family involvement in the schools. More than 700 people attended the party, which included pizza, an appearance by the school’s eagle mascot, a DJ, and ice cream sundaes. The event sent a powerful message to the school community that this PTO is thinking big.

At Lorenzo de Zavala Middle School in Amarillo, Texas, a Tailgate Party combined with a Load Your Locker event brought kids and parents out to have fun, meet their teachers, and get acquainted with the PTA. At the outdoor Tailgate Party, parents could buy spiritwear and fill out forms for volunteering, while kids ate hot dogs, listened to music, and socialized. At the same time, the school was open so students could find and stock their lockers, and chat with teachers in the hallways.

At Heritage Elementary in Chula Vista, Calif., the parent group built a sense of community with a Family Luau and Picnic. There were sack races, relays, Hawaiian entertainment, and food. Parents served food while middle school and high school students led the games. Local businesses set up booths related to gardening, farming, and healthy diets.
Several booths included crafts and activities.

A Place for Comfort

For years, parent groups have hosted gatherings for parents who may be sad after dropping off their little ones at their classroom. The first day of school can be an emotional roller coaster, especially for kindergarten parents.

These events, known as Coffee and Kleenex, Boohoo/Yahoo Breakfast (for sad parents of kindergartners and happy parents of older children), or Tears and Cheers, often include tissues, snacks, and support from “been there, done that” parents.

A Coffee and Kleenex event is often held in the cafeteria. Volunteers serve coffee, juice, and pastries. It’s a great opportunity for the parent group to provide information and sign up new members.

Some parent groups have erased the mention of tears from these informal events and just bill them as a coffee social for parents. The goal is to give parents a little more time at school, in a warm, comfortable setting, before heading home or to work. Even if you don’t call it Coffee and Kleenex, it’s a good idea to have tissues handy.

Pitching In

For some parent groups, the focus is on helping with logistics and infusing the school with warmth and friendliness during the first week.

Parents can help students find their classrooms in the morning and locate the right bus in the afternoon. At Cochrane Elementary in Louisville, Ky., parent volunteers use color-coded bracelets that match up with color-coded buses to make sure each child gets home safely.

Volunteers can provide additional staffing in the school office and cafeteria. These daily tasks aren’t glamorous, but they are a huge help during a time when principals and teachers need all the assistance they can get. By walking the halls, smiling, and asking what they can do to help, parent group members can make those first few days more pleasant for everyone.

At many schools, volunteers greet parents in the pickup and drop-off line. Some give out coffee and doughnuts. Bottled water is always welcome on a hot day. Another approach is to set up a table in the lobby and hand out information about the parent group, along with small gifts. Gifts might include bags of chocolates tied with ribbons in the school colors or a Hawaiian lei with a message such as “We’re lei-ing the groundwork for school success!”

Welcoming New Families

For families new to a school, the first week can be a time of anxiety, with parents wondering whether they will fit in and more important, whether their kids will find acceptance. The parent group can help new families find their footing by distributing a welcome packet, offering to personally show them around the school, and introducing them to families with kids in the same grades.

Many schools hold get-acquainted events for new families. At B.F. Norton Elementary in Cumberland, R.I., incoming kindergarten students are invited to a Come and Meet Your Classmates gathering. Children get to choose a backpack and school supplies to take home.

At Juana Briones Elementary in Palo Alto, Calif., a schedule packed with back-to-school activities includes a Newcomer Treasure Hunt. New students come to the school the day before the first day and learn their way around through a treasure hunt. To complete the hunt, they have to find the library, office, classroom, and playgrounds. They make new friends as they find their treasures.

What Not To Do

There are a few things a parent group should  not do the first week of school. First, don’t take on too much. No matter how much you want to make a huge impression, trying to put on a major back-to-school event as well as a teacher luncheon and a meet and greet for new families might be unrealistic. It’s better to have one well-organized activity than several events that seem disorganized or stress out both you and volunteers.

The first week of school generally is not the right time to ask for money. It’s better to show parents how the parent group contributes to school life rather than risk leaving them with the impression that they’ll be asked for donations at every turn.

Those first few days are also not always the most effective time to hound people to sign up to chair committees or agree to spearhead large events. Parents are thinking about getting back into the school groove and making sure their kids have what they need. They may be turned off if asked to take on a leadership role before they’ve found their child’s homeroom.

Fundraising and leadership recruitment can come later. Instead, channel your group’s efforts during that first week into creating a welcoming atmosphere that will make kids feel comfortable and parents want to get—and stay—involved.