Principal Timothy Neville doesn’t like it, but he understands why parents are reluctant to get involved in their children’s middle school. For one, the roles for parents aren’t as clear as in elementary school, when their child had a single classroom teacher rather than seven. Then there’s the matter of the children, who at that age would rather mom and dad not appear in the school hallways—or anywhere else a peer might spot them. Mothers are more likely to be back in the workforce once their children hit adolescence, and thus have less free time to give. And, Neville says, there’s also the delicate matter of parents’ own middle school years.
“We have a large group of parents who are uncomfortable with middle school....They’re bringing their own memories of that time with them,” says Neville, principal of John F. Kennedy Middle School in Enfield, Conn. “And who can blame them? If somebody asked me whether I’d rather go back to junior high school or senior high school, I would choose senior high. I would never voluntarily go back to the seventh grade.”
While parents and teachers may shrug off diminishing participation as a natural response to adolescents’ growing autonomy, more than three decades of research clearly document the benefits of middle school parent involvement. In the report “Program Development in the National Network of Partnership Schools: a Comparison of Elementary, Middle and High Schools,” Johns Hopkins University researchers Mavis G. Sanders and Beth S. Simon note that keeping a hand in a child’s education at home and in school leads to higher academic achievement, better school attendance, stronger homework skills, and a greater likelihood of graduating from high school and college.
So what’s a parent to do? According to experts, there are many ways to stay involved during your child’s middle school years while remaining sensitive to his feelings and your own.
The Opportunities Are There
The key is to collaborate with teachers, administrators, and students to determine how parents can fill unmet needs. In a chapter titled “School and Family Partnerships in the Middle Grades” from Creating Family/School Partnerships, Joyce Epstein and Lori Connors write that mentoring, coaching, and tutoring are good ways for parents to contribute, especially given that students’ skills, interests, and talents become increasingly diverse in the middle grades.
Epstein, who is also director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships and the National Network of Partnership Schools at Johns Hopkins, says each school has a responsibility to set up, plan, and implement a program of parent involvement. Her organization’s website, partnershipschools.org, contains information on creating a program.
Specifically, parents may volunteer as a language translator, serve as advisor for an extracurricular activity such as the school paper, chess club, or science fair, or help out during school in the computer lab. You may want to discuss with your child whether she wants you to participate in her activities or ones she’s not involved in. Either way, you help the school and keep apprised of the goings on there.
If working with kids doesn’t appeal to you (or your child), adults in the school community need plenty of help.
You could, for example, provide child care for other parents while they attend a school conference or meeting, serve on a welcoming committee for parents new to the school, or create an in-school parent resource center that provides books and tapes on handling adolescents.
Another way to connect with parents is to plan or help out with social events.
The Collinwood Middle and High School in Cleveland kicks off the year with an ice cream social for students and parents. Attendees receive information about tutoring opportunities, student required reading lists, and volunteer questionnaires.
The Kennedy Middle School starts even earlier. The school, which serves students in seventh and eighth grade, invites sixth-graders and their parents in for an orientation in February. In August, an evening is set aside for the children and their parents to receive their homeroom assignments and locker combinations, and to familiarize themselves with the layout of the 1,100-student school. The PTO is on hand to recruit members. Then two weeks after school opens, parents are asked back in to meet their children’s teachers.
The PTO of Folsom Middle School in Folsom, Calif., piloted a hybrid ice cream social/school orientation for fifth graders, held in May. Representatives from school clubs staffed information tables, students from the peer-tutoring group gave campus tours, and the PTO dished out ice cream.
“It isn’t transparent to those people that that’s a PTO event. So the PTO doesn’t get a whole lot of mileage from it. But if they feel better about the school, ultimately they feel better about the PTO,” says PTO President Mary Ann Glueckert.
Out of Sight, Not Mind
Whereas in elementary school parents often assist in the classroom, in middle school teachers and students generally frown on that kind of hands-on help. However, school staff members usually welcome help outside of class.
Typing class lists, photocopying homework assignments, collecting recyclables for a science or art project, calling parents to remind them about a field trip or upcoming school event are all ways you can contribute to school life and keep abreast of what’s happening.
Other ways to help include serving on a parent-school advisory council and assisting with fundraising or charitable programs.
Spreading the Word
All the involvement opportunities in the world won’t do any good if no one knows about them. In middle school, where the population is usually drawn from a larger area than elementary schools, communication among parents can be more difficult. But a well-coordinated parent group can get the word out.
Debbie Wahlen, PTO president at Tri North Middle School in Bloomington, Ind., worked with school technology personnel to create an email list. Parents signed up to receive daily school announcements, notices of volunteer opportunities, and other information. Called a listserv, this daily email was put to the test when Wahlen sent out a request for a teacher appreciation event.
“It was so gratifying to send out the message and within five minutes to be getting responses,” she says.
Wahlen also spearheaded an effort to create a student directory, something her elementary school PTO had done. The directory helps families network, which is critical given that several elementary schools feed into the middle school and many of the students are meeting for the first time. In the directory’s first year, roughly 30 percent of the school’s families opted to be listed. Last year, there was 100 percent participation.
Neville of the Kennedy School publishes a newsletter 11 times per year and has enlisted students to help create a website. The Folsom Middle School parent-teacher organization supplements its school newsletter with a marquee, newly installed in front of the school. A second message board is in the school’s all-purpose room. These appeal to time-strapped parents, who may not read the newsletters but do take time to read the marquees when picking up and dropping off their children. The PTO paid for these items with money raised from concessions.
Glueckert has also asked for floor time at faculty meetings and school events, during which she speaks of the PTO’s mission of creating an inclusive environment for families and students.
Keep Expectations Realistic
Middle school PTOs often try to replicate the programs that worked so well in elementary school—and fail miserably. PTOs should take stock of the changing dynamics between home and school, and tailor their outreach accordingly. It’s up to each middle school PTO to determine what will foster a sense of community in their school, then put in place the opportunities that will allow parents to contribute to it.
“If we leave it up to each parent to figure all of this out, not much is going to happen,” Epstein said.
15 Ways To Help Your Child’s Middle School
Serve as a resource for parents of incoming students.
Volunteer as a language translator.
Monitor hallways and restrooms.
Staff a school welcome desk.
Create an in-school parent resource center containing material on adolescence.
Record a cassette tape for students to read along with when their textbook is beyond their reading level.
Run fundraising programs, such as clothing exchanges, school stores, fairs, and discount programs with local merchants.
Make copies of games and other classroom materials for teachers.
Type class lists.
Collect recyclables to be used in the classroom.
Operate phone trees to help schedule parent volunteers.
Provide childcare so another parent can volunteer in the classroom.
Spend a few after-work hours at school helping teachers prepare materials for future lessons, decorate classrooms, inventory supplies.
Coach students in organizational skills.