Parent groups find many fun and creative ways to improve student learning. From making flash cards for students to use at home to organizing a Saturday morning homework club, PTOs and PTAs are zeroing in on academic needs and supporting teachers in their efforts to bring out the best in each student.

At Chain of Lakes Elementary in Winter Haven, Fla., the PTO created the Work Smarter Not Harder team, which helps teachers collaborate and work more efficiently. The team invited teachers to pool their ideas via email. “We then created classroom resources the teachers felt would be helpful,” says Darcey Martin, the PTO member who coordinates classroom volunteers.

Parents made supplies such as response cards on a ring for each student, so teachers can assess quickly whether a student understands a concept. For example, a teacher can see how well students comprehend a social studies lesson by calling out statements and having kids hold up cards labeled “true” and “false.” Volunteers also made math and reading flash cards organized in filing systems. The resources can be used in the classroom, and kids can take them home during holidays and summer vacation. The PTO posted the resources on a shared folder accessible to teachers throughout the district.

“We allow teachers to focus on teaching rather than gathering and creating resources,” Martin says.

The Chain of Lakes PTO brings that same emphasis on efficiency to its Volunteers in the Classroom program. The group recruits parents and community members as volunteers and makes sure they have the support they need to make a difference in the classroom. For example, some volunteers are uncomfortable helping kids with more complex skills that the volunteers might have forgotten, such as multiplication of fractions and prepositional phrases. So they instead are asked to focus on the basics all kids need to move forward, such as sight words and math facts.

“Volunteers need to know what to do; they need to know what they’re teaching,” Martin says. “We have volunteers do the foundation work. We are front-loading the lower grades with volunteers to make sure our kids learn those important skills when they’re supposed to.”

Martin reaches out to senior citizens and high school students to increase the number of volunteers working one-on-one with students. She even recruits parents sitting in the carpool line; if they come into the building and volunteer in a classroom, they are told, they get a plum parking spot.

“Classroom volunteering is my passion,” Martin says. “We have PTO volunteers who coordinate events, and we also have this intensive effort to place volunteers in the classroom. Our school benefits from both types of volunteers.”

Helping Parents Help Their Children

Gwendolyn Webb-Hasan, an associate professor of educational administration and human resource development at Texas A&M University, has researched parent engagement and says she loves it when PTOs and PTAs reach out to parents and help them help their children at home. “So many parents just need some ideas,” Webb-Hasan says. “They may want to know, ‘How do I help my baby with spelling when I’m Latino and English is not my first language?’”

In schools serving diverse populations, Webb-Hasan suggests that parent groups mobilize native English speakers to record DVDs or podcasts of spelling and vocabulary words for parents whose first language isn’t English. (Likewise, Spanish-speaking parents might record DVDs or podcasts for students to use in Spanish class.)

Webb-Hasan also has a recommendation for parent group newsletters: a column reviewing aca-demic skills students are working on. “If middle school students are studying associative and distributive properties in algebra, the PTA can remind parents what those properties are,” she says. Each newsletter issue might focus on a particular grade and subject, such as 3rd grade math or 1st grade reading. The newsletter could also offer tips for parents, such as how to set up an effective homework station.

PTOs and PTAs can also direct parents to resources like Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org), a free website that provides easy-to-understand, 10-minute math lessons that kids and parents can use to review skills at home. “There are so many things parent groups can do to create a win-win,” Webb-Hasan says.

Focus on Literacy

For many parent groups, reading incentive programs are a fun way to help nurture a love of reading among students. At Myers Corners Elementary in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., the PTA organizes the Parents as Reading Partners program, which the New York State PTA sponsors. From October to April, children receive a calendar each month for tracking their reading. They are encouraged to read four nights a week for at least 15 minutes. Six years ago, Myers Corners added its own signature to the PARP program by giving a book to each child who turns in a completed calendar at the end of the month.

“Our message to kids is we want them to read, read, read,” says Rosaline Lombardo, coordinator of PARP at Myers Corners. “We tell them, ‘If you read, you’ll be rewarded.’”

The group gives away about 1,500 books a year, and the budget line item of about $4,000 is a big one. But they know it’s worthwhile. “We just want to support our kids’ good reading habits,” Lombardo says, adding that the program includes a competition among classes, with the winning class receiving an ice cream party. “Those calendars are posted on a lot of refrigerators.”

The parent group also sponsors a family reading night, which includes a book swap and a visit from a local author.

At Winding Ridge Elementary School of Inquiry and Performing Arts in Indianapolis, the parent group turned its attention to literacy after 3rd graders did not perform as well on a high-stakes reading test as parents and teachers had hoped they would.

The parent group worked with administrators and teachers to figure out what parents could do to help prepare students for the 2013 assessment. “Through many planning and brainstorming meetings, the principal came up with the idea of holding Saturday study sessions,” says Toni Welch, president of the Winding Ridge Family Association.

Parents and other community members staff the Saturday program. Organizers describe the program as a homework club, and students enjoy participating. “They come on Saturday because they feel like someone is rooting for them,” Welch says. “They know someone cares about them.”

The WRFA also organized reading events, with a goal of promoting reading as something kids should do for fun, not just to pass a test. The group sponsored a readathon, challenging students to read 40 books. Kids earned incentives such as books and bookmarks for completing their reading logs. The readathon included a kickoff event at which a local media personality read to students.

The parent group sponsored another event called Reading All-Stars. They invited other community members, such as a meteorologist and the state education superintendent, to talk about the importance of reading in their careers. Children also made their own books during the event.

When the test results came in, 64 percent of 3rd graders passed the exam, up three percentage points from 2012. The gain was seen as a significant victory in a school where more than 60 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and where every improvement is hard-earned. “The WRFA feels that the planning of extra academic efforts from the parent organization, staff, and principal helped our students prepare for the exam,” Welch says. “We were able to get parents involved with the curriculum and improve outcomes on the reading exam.”

There are countless ways parent groups can support the academic success of their students. By working with teachers to determine the type of help students need, parent groups can play a significant role in helping all students excel academically and reach their full potential.


Tips for Working With Teachers

To have a real impact on student achievement, parent groups need to work closely with teachers and administrators. Here are some tips for collaborating with school staff.

Let teachers know you want to support them. Some teachers might seem reluctant to work with the parent group. They might be overwhelmed with work. Or they might have been burned by empty promises from volunteers in the past. Assure the teachers that you respect the work they do every day and want to support their efforts. Let them know you’re not criticizing how they do their job.

Build trust. Follow through on every commitment. Start small, and demonstrate to teachers that volunteers are going to do what they say they’re going to do. Work around the teacher’s schedule instead of expecting the teacher to accommodate volunteers.

Prepare an agenda. When meeting with an administrator to pitch a program, make an appointment for a 45-minute meeting and provide an agenda a couple of days in advance. Come with printed copies of the agenda, and stick to the document during the meeting. This demonstrates respect for the administrator’s time. “A busy person wants an agenda,” says Darcey Martin of Chain of Lakes Elementary PTO in Winter Haven, Fla.

Respond to concerns. Some teachers may fear that parents will be a distraction for their child. If that’s the case, offer to place volunteers in a different class, or assure the teacher that parent volunteers will speak to their kids before their first volunteering session.

Ask the right questions. Make your volunteer time in the classroom effective by asking about specific skills the teacher is covering and finding out which of those skills are causing students the most difficulty. For one class, spelling might be a weakness. In another, the teacher might be concerned that kids don’t understand fractions.