Raising test scores is a priority for many schools, and PTOs and PTAs can play a significant role in boosting student achievement.

Whether parents work one-on-one with students who need help with reading or grade math worksheets as part of an enrichment program, groups can make a difference in student achievement while motivating students to do their best when it’s time for the test.

Angela Garrett was a school principal in north Georgia for 14 years before retiring last spring. She and her team got their PTO involved in raising student achievement through a tutoring program for students struggling in math. Moms and dads worked with 1st and 2nd graders in small groups. Some parents worked with the whole class, walking around and sitting with students who needed help.

Garrett and her team of teachers focused on achievement, not test scores. They wanted to make sure their young students had a solid foundation in math. With that foundation, students had the best chance to do well on standardized tests, which in many schools become important in 3rd grade. Often, state law requires kids to repeat that grade if they cannot pass certain portions of the test.

The PTO contributed in other ways as well, such as fundraising for interactive whiteboards. But the focus was mainly on helping students succeed academically. “[A] PTO can be involved in any way you want them to if they are eager,” Garrett says. “Tutoring and mentoring are great ways to help the kids and help the school.”

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Focusing on improving academics requires volunteers to work closely with teachers and administrators to make sure efforts are honing in on specific academic needs. Parent groups can work with school leaders to plan programs and events that will help the school reach its test score goals (which can mean, at least temporarily, postponing other events and programs). When working with the administration, it’s important to work together to form a plan, spell out who will do what, and have ongoing communication as the plan is executed.

“We had so many caring parents,” says Garrett, whose school, Westwood Elementary in Dalton, Ga., has a diverse population. “They wanted to help where they were needed most.”

Lifting test scores is an ambitious goal, but programs to help improve student learning do not have to be time-consuming or complicated. Elizabeth Chong, a volunteer at F.C. Martin International K-8 Center in Miami, Fla., took over the Math SuperStars, a voluntary and popular enrichment program in the state.

Chong loved the math worksheets, which include thought-provoking word problems and puzzles suitable for discussion at the dinner table. She didn’t have a large budget for incentives. Fortunately, students were happy with dollar-store prizes, inexpensive trophies, and a pizza party. A plan to have a traveling trophy for the class with the most points each week didn’t work out because volunteers were busy grading worksheets and tracking progress—but that was OK.

“You can go big if you have the volunteers and resources to do so, but you can also make a difference without getting too complicated,” she says, adding that the parent group plans to enlist middle school math club members to help grade worksheets. “My kids loved the program, and they were thrilled with their small prizes.”

Reading Ideas

Incentive Programs

Children improve their reading skills through practice, and many parent groups have pulled off successful reading incentive programs. Parents as Reading Partners is sponsored by the National PTA and encourages students to track the minutes they spend reading. At Titusville Intermediate School in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the parent group motivated students to rack up minutes with a Titusville Reading Passport, a new book, weekly raffles, and other goodies.

Tutoring Programs

Many children need to read one-on-one with an adult to stay motivated and to improve their skills. By working with teachers to identify kids who need help and match students with volunteers, tutoring program volunteers can have a significant impact. Identify a time and a place for tutoring. Some schools open their doors on Saturday mornings; others make time before, during, or after school. But avoid pulling kids out of recess or other fun activities for tutoring. Provide a short training session for volunteers, and encourage them to work closely with the child’s classroom teacher.

Take-Home Activities

Parent groups can work with teachers to create learning packets for students to take home. For reading, these packets may include sight word flash cards, reading passages with multiple- choice questions, word bingo, and other activities as recommended by teachers. Packets can be customized for students based on their reading level. These packets can be sent home before winter break or summer vacation.

Parent Education Nights

Parents often want specific information from teachers on how to help their children at home. A reading night geared toward parents gives teachers a chance to educate parents on how to select books, motivate reluctant readers, and help their child advance to the next level. Provide on-site child care so children will be entertained and parents can focus without distractions.

Online Resources

Some parent groups pay for schools to have access to high-quality online resources for students to use at home and at school. Raz-Kids, for example, provides interactive e-books at various reading levels and comprehension quizzes. Once implemented, parent groups can motivate families to use the online resource by talking up the program at meetings, hanging posters around the school, and including information in newsletters.

Math Ideas

Incentive Programs

At Bluebonnet Elementary in Fort Worth, Texas, volunteer Kim Prezioso revamped an existing math incentive program to make the content more rele­vant for her school’s students. She worked with teachers to create worksheets that matched what students were learning in class and what they needed to know to succeed on the standardized test. The voluntary program runs for 16 weeks. Parents collect and grade worksheets every Friday. The top prize: lunch with the principal. “Our graders can see the students progress, [and] they just get better and better,” she says. “My whole goal was to have kids have fun while learning and practicing math and earning medals and ribbons.”

Tutoring Programs

Math tutoring programs can be challenging to organize because parents often lack confidence in their own math abilities. Volunteers can work with teachers to match parents with students for one-on-one or small-group assistance. Make sure parents know they are there to help reinforce material and are not expected to teach new math skills. Encourage parents who are less confident in math to ask students to explain how they solved a problem.

Take-Home Activities

To promote math skills, volunteers can assemble packets with math fact flash cards, math bingo, play money, and math games. Work with teachers to customize activities based on each student’s level. Prepare the materials for students to take home before school breaks and summer vacation.

Parent Education Nights

A math night for parents is an increasingly popular event as parents struggle with new methods of math instruction that differ from their own school experiences. Dawn Heerema, an instructional coach for Hudsonville (Michigan) Public Schools, organized a district-wide parent information night. The event opened with an overview of what kids were learning in math, then parents attended breakout sessions taught by teachers. “Our teachers are our experts,” Heerema says. “They gave parents the facts they needed to know in a concrete way.” An event like Hudsonville’s could be tailored to an individual school’s needs.

Online Resources

Encourage students to hone their math skills by paying for access to quality online math programs such as IXL, which provides opportunities for math practice broken down by skill. Parent groups can also help promote the program through reminders to parents and with incentives like prizes for classes with the most participation.