1. Get Involved. Why does one of your children do his homework regularly and the other think of any excuse he can to avoid it? Why does one child excel at math and the other one dread it? As a parent, it can sometimes seem like an utter mystery what leads to student success. But while experts sometimes disagree as to what makes a child a lifelong reader, or what makes one shy and another outgoing, there’s one area in which the research is absolutely clear: parent involvement. That’s why everyone from the PTA to the U.S. government itself has made it a top educational priority. “The research is clear,” says Sullivan, “We know without a doubt that when parents get involved in schools, test scores go up, and dropout rates go down. Everyone does better.” Whether you’re ready to helm a huge parent event, or just bring paper plates to the fundraising barbeque, make sure that you find some way to participate in your school’s parent group. Your kindergartener will be listening when you tell him school is important, but he’ll also be watching. Show him with your actions that your family takes school seriously, not just with your words.
2. Think Out of the Box. Your parent organization probably has a slew of yearly events and traditions. And they’d probably love your help organizing them this year. But don’t be put off if you don’t see an instant match. Think about your skills, and about what you like to do. Offer them! “Background in accounting?” says Domene, “Wonderful! Baking? Terrific! I know dads that have set up chess clubs. I even know a dad that organized soccer every day at lunch and now he’s been doing it for more than ten years.” Whether you’re a graphic designer who volunteers to redesign the school t-shirt, or a computer whiz who’s ready to launch a PTA or PTO website, parent groups want your help and enthusiasm. These are volunteer organizations and if you’re willing to start something new, most groups will be overjoyed to let you. Just be ready to take an active role when it comes to new endeavors, not just offer ideas about what others should do.
3. Pace yourself. Watching a child head off to kindergarten can be exhilerating, and you may feel tempted to dive in and volunteer for just about everything at once. Instead, cautions Sullivan, think long term. “You don’t need to come in with guns a-blazing…find out how things work. Find something that fits your schedule and interests. Make it fit you, and make it last.” It’s better to volunteer for less things and be reliable, than volunteer for more and never show up.
4. Look for a mentor. Especially if you’re just starting out at a school, says Sullivan, “Look for moms and dads who seem to volunteer in a way you’d like to do it.” Get to know these folks and follow in their footsteps. Quite possibly, not only will you learn the ropes, you’ll also make a new friend. Parent groups are a great way to help the school, but they’re also a wonderful way to spread your wings socially. Domene, for example, is still in touch with parents and teachers from her children’s very first years in elementary school, decades ago.
Ready to get involved? Go for it! Strong schools take partnership, not just leadership. As Sullivan says, “Great teachers teach the Three R’s; great principals make good schools. And great parent groups make the difference between a big pile of bricks with teachers inside, or a real community.”