All parent groups want to have a positive impact on their schools. But sometimes, it’s hard to know what types of projects make a real difference. Should you focus on academics? Activities that bring families together? Outreach to the community?

“I don’t think there is one big, magic bullet,” says Tonya Turner, assistant principal at Calhoun (Ga.) High School, as well as a former middle school and elementary school teacher. “It’s all the little things parents do.”

For parent groups, success lies in the specifics. It’s the details that bring about good results. For example, PTOs often ask parents to bring in school supplies midyear to replenish supply closets. To make the most of that effort, groups can first ask teachers exactly what they need. During the winter, teachers might prioritize germ-killing wipes and hand sanitizer over copy paper and crayons. Or teachers might prefer to make do with the supplies they have and instead ask their parent group to contribute to a bigger-ticket item such as a cart for a mobile laptop computer lab. By zeroing in on the school’s most urgent needs, the parent group can have the most impact.

Here are eight ideas from school principals who have succeeded in nurturing enthusiastic parent involvement.

1. Seek input to identify volunteer opportunities.

At Mariposa Elementary in Brea, Calif., the PTA includes as many parents as possible in the conversation. “We don’t want to suffer from ‘groupthink,’” says principal Helene Cunningham. “We don’t think we know everything.” Parent groups can survey parents to find out their professional skills, hobbies, and interests. Then the PTA can use the information to identify meaningful volunteer opportunities. For example, a project manager can bring fresh eyes to a challenge a school is having with a chaotic carpool line. A graphic designer might be just the person to create posters for the upcoming readathon. And a parent with a culinary background might want to help kids understand measurement and fractions through a cooking demonstration.

2. Encourage participation in parent-teacher conferences.

Face-to-face parent-teacher conferences are extremely important, says Turner, and she urges parent groups to get creative in conveying that message. For instance, parent groups could offer incentives for parents who attend, such as a raffle for a night at the movies for the family. You could also devote time during a meeting to holding a mock parent-teacher conference, demonstrating how parents can use the opportunity to ask important questions about their child.

3. Inspire students to read.

Reading is a key to academic success, says Turner, and many parent groups go all out in encouraging kids to practice reading. From readathons to family reading nights to author visits, parent groups can build on what teachers are doing in the classroom. At Calhoun (Ga.) Primary School, the superintendent sponsored a readathon, and the classes that read for the most minutes got to spend part of the school day at an on-site carnival sponsored by the parent group. “They set up inflatables and a slushy machine, and the kids had a great time,” Turner says.

4. Let parents know what’s new.

Frequently, when schools roll out new programs, tests, and approaches, parents don’t know anything about the changes. Parent groups can help get the word out. At Mariposa Elementary, the PTA has helped communicate with parents about the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which has been adopted by California and spells out what kids should know at each grade level. The PTA gave a slideshow presentation on Common Core at a parent meeting. “I bring the information to the PTA, and the PTA can help get the information out to other families,” Cunningham says. Other parent groups have held math nights, giving parents the opportunity to hear from teachers about instruction methods and to ask questions.

5. Use all channels of communication.

Joe Mazza realizes that no parent can attend every school event. Mazza is former principal of Knapp Elementary in Lansdale, Pa. Under his supervision, Knapp created podcasts, videos, and highlight reels so parents can find out what happened without having to attend in person. “We have to cater to everyone’s needs,” he says. To work toward that goal, the school uses online tools like Google Calendar, which parent group leaders, school staff, and others can work on collaboratively to ensure that events don’t conflict with each other. Mazza is now working with the Lansdale school district to bring his vision to more schools.

6. Be present for kids whose parents cannot.

Richard Green, principal of Aaron Cohn Middle School in Columbus, Ga., sees a drop-off in parent involvement as kids get older. Yet adolescents need their parents more than ever. Green encourages parents to attend events, particularly those not connected to sports. And he loves to see parents cheering for students whose parents couldn’t make it to the event. “That means a lot to kids,” he says. When the PTO president asked Green the most important thing that parents could do, Green did not hesitate to answer: “The biggest thing we need is to see you in the building,” he said. “Eat lunch here, move around, meet kids, and make connections.”

7. Help in areas outside the classroom.

A key way parents can support schools is to give staff members the gift of time, says Chad High, principal at Cole Elementary in Antioch, Tenn. At most schools, teachers have duties outside the classroom, such as monitoring the playground and the lunchroom and copying materials for future lessons. The more of these tasks parents can help with, the more time teachers will have to focus on teaching. High says he hopes to someday have enough parent volunteers to run the teacher work room and the cafeteria. “If we can accomplish this, we can use the paid staff to work closely with children who need extra help,” High says. Such help is especially vital in schools that have had reductions in support staff. Parent volunteers can help at the school library, serve as informal teacher aides, and assist in the front office, for example.

8. Help kids who are falling behind.

At Damascus (Md.) Elementary, principal Sean McGee appreciates his PTA’s aid in funding a summer school program. “This helps by giving those in financial need academic support during the summer,” McGee says, adding that the PTA also funds classroom technology, which enables all students to learn at their own pace. Parent groups can train parents to tutor kids in the classroom and organize before- and after-school tutoring programs. Parent groups can also create flash cards, worksheet packets, learning games, and other activities for kids to use with their parents at home.

Principals have different ideas about how parent groups can make a difference, but they agree on the key points: that parent support is essential for a school to thrive, that parent groups succeed when they communicate with school staff, and that kids benefit most when administrators, teachers, and parents all work together.


Tips for Communicating With Your School’s Faculty

Parent groups are most effective when they have good communication with teachers and administrators. By talking openly and often about the needs of the students, parent groups can better plan and execute programs that make the school a better place for children to learn and grow. Sean McGee, principal of Damascus (Md.) Elementary, says such open communication “starts with a conversation.”

Here are expert tips on maintaining strong communication amid hectic schedules:

Schedule regular meetings with your principal. Whether it’s weekly, biweekly, or daily, make sure a representative from the parent group is speaking regularly with the principal. “I see my PTA president daily,” says Helene Cunningham, principal of Mariposa Elementary in Brea, Calif. “You have to keep communication flowing.”

Start with the goal, and then suggest an event or program. Instead of announcing the parent group’s plan to host a family science night, first talk to the principal about the school’s goals for the year. Many schools are focusing on STEM, which might make a science night an ideal event. But if the school leadership team is more concerned about kids who cannot read at grade level, a literacy event might make more sense.

Discuss early on how money will be spent. A parent group will get more buy-in from teachers and staff if they support the goal of a fundraiser. For example, if the principal’s top concern is outdated technology, a fundraiser to raise money for technology would most likely have the enthusiastic support of the school’s faculty.

Seek feedback. Talk to the principal about how an event, program, or other activity could be improved upon for next time. It’s hard to put yourself in a position to receive criticism, but asking for feedback will build trust.

Determine the best way to communicate. It’s important to speak face-to-face, but it’s not always possible. See if your principal prefers email, phone calls, or texts to convey urgent information, and be willing to use that preferred method.