Each February, Rice, Minn., goes all out for its children. The mayor of the town of 1,200 issues a proclamation declaring it “Rice Loves Its Kids” month. Businesses display lighted hearts in their windows and hang a banner downtown. At Rice Elementary, colorfully decorated valentines, sent from parents to the school’s first- and last-year students, brighten up the hallways. The Rice PTA, which sponsors the monthlong celebration, plans weekly family events such as a movie night and a sock hop.
Rice Loves Its Kids has been going on for at least 20 years. “It’s something that I don’t ever see dying,” says PTA president Kim Kubat. “It makes you proud to be a part of a community that does something like that for so many years and takes pride in kids.”
The tradition is a way for the community as a whole to show that it values children, to emphasize the importance of education, and to steer kids in a positive direction. It has the additional benefits of building business support for the school and increasing parent involvement. Business owners visit the school, invite students on tours, and donate prizes awarded to students. Parents who haven’t otherwise participated in PTA meetings or events come out to support their kids.
“When parents get involved through Rice Loves Its Kids month, they see what other things are going on at school and it sparks their interest in getting involved,” Kubat says. “Kids see their parents getting involved, and it really gives the kids a feeling of pride.”
Rather than becoming a tired routine, Rice Loves Its Kids is a prized community tradition that people look forward to each year. Traditions like this can strengthen bonds within the school community, motivate parents to become more involved in the parent group, and create positive memories for parents and kids. No matter how packed families’ schedules are, these highly anticipated traditions are can’t-miss events.
A popular tradition can also strengthen a parent group’s image. As the group becomes associated with an event that families value highly, it builds a reputation for putting parent involvement ahead of fundraising.
The Hilltop Drive Elementary PTA may be best known for its final activity of the year, a family campout on school grounds. The first weekend in June, a village of tents and motor homes pops up outside the Chula Vista, Calif., school. Approximately 150 families enjoy a barbecue dinner, games and crafts, a movie, and a campfire sing-along before turning in for the night. When they emerge from their sleeping bags the next morning, they enjoy a breakfast prepared by 6th grade parents.
As with many traditions, no one seems to remember exactly when the family campout started. Susan Johnson, teacher liaison to the PTA, recalls that the campout was already a strong tradition when she joined the school 15 years ago. It’s now in its second generation; some parents who camped out last year participated in the event as students. “It brings younger families into the fold,” Johnson says. “They might go to a PTA meeting or family reading night, but when they come to the family campout, they bond with other parents. They’re sleeping right next to them.”
Students look forward to the end-of-school campout all year long. For some, it’s their only opportunity to go camping. And parents enjoy the time to socialize and compare notes about summer activities.
Hilltop Drive’s campout tradition is all about having fun and building community. When the PTA considered canceling it one year because of a shortage of volunteers, parents insisted on keeping the event. And kids who have moved on from elementary school often ask to camp out with their younger siblings.
Principal Michelle Beauchamp believes the event contributes to the PTA’s reputation as a fun group. “I think people overall look forward to our PTA activities and events,” she says, noting that 300 people attended the group’s most recent family dinner night. The school has about 550 students.
Traditions also provide a sense of stability, helping children feel more secure during times of change. That’s why, when the 150-student Washington Elementary in Coshocton, Ohio, merged with the much larger Central Elementary last fall, the Central PTO decided to continue Washington’s chili supper and book fair.
The annual event was never just about the chili. It was also about strengthening a sense of community, both within the school and in the surrounding neighborhood. Parents and teachers helped run the event while older students bused tables decorated with centerpieces that children made in art classes. Former students often returned for the night, and many elderly neighborhood residents attended every year.
“I thought if we brought the chili supper down there, it would help with the transition, and it did,” says PTO president Jodi Maziar, whose son formerly attended Washington Elementary.
Kids loved having the familiar event, and helping run it gave them a sense of ownership in the new school, Maziar says. “A lot of the kids were tickled with that.”
Even community members without ties to the school came out to enjoy the chili and support the school. The PTO plans to continue the event next year, establishing a new tradition at Central Elementary, which has more than 500 students.
Many schools have established meaningful traditions without staging big events like a family campout or community supper. At North Plains Elementary in Oregon, students eagerly anticipate several simple traditions as they advance through the grades.
When 1st graders memorize math tables, they each take a turn ringing the bell atop the school, supervised by parents and volunteers from the local Knights of Pythias lodge. Each year, 3rd graders build cars from recycled materials, such as oatmeal containers and lotion bottles. Parents line the school halls as students race the cars on a ramp.
These milestones give students something to look forward to as well as a feeling of continuity and stability, says Rebecca Lantz, auditor of the PTO and chairwoman of the Hillsboro School District board of directors. “They look for these traditions. They need to have them as they go through school.”
Younger students particularly look forward to the annual primary tea. Just before winter break in December, students in kindergarten through 3rd grades gather in the cafeteria, where parents and teachers serve them cocoa and doughnut holes. The principal reads to the students as they enjoy the treats.
Lantz described these and other North Plains traditions in a column in the local newspaper, noting that they have long-lasting effects. “It’s the traditions that a school builds that keeps a community strong,” she says.
Start Your Own Tradition
Just as traditions build bonds among family members, they can strengthen parent groups and school communities. Whether it’s a communitywide dinner or a small celebration of student achievement, school traditions can build excitement and boost a parent group’s reputation.
Start small. Make sure the event is well-organized and appeals to the entire school community but simple enough that it can be duplicated the following year. Once people become excited about the event, it will be easier to expand it in future years.
Make it mean something. Use the occasion to recognize student achievement, celebrate a holiday, or observe the beginning or end of the school year.
Focus on the rewards. Make the event rewarding for participants by planning fun family activities and giving parents opportunities to bond with one another.
Make it participative. Try to give kids, parents, and school staff members a role to play. The more they participate, the more they will become invested in continuing the tradition.
Don’t be afraid to change it up. Having a tradition doesn’t mean that you’re required to do the exact same thing every year. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, and make changes accordingly. Hilltop Drive Elementary, for example, has a campout every year but changes the activities based on the budget and what’s available.