Making the most of back-to-school night

Posted July 22, 2008
Updated July 23, 2008

— It's a time to meet teachers, tour classrooms and nibble on snacks. But back-to-school night shouldn't stop there.

The night, which usually occurs within a few weeks of the first day of school, is a chance for parents to ask questions to prepare for the coming year.

Experts suggest parents use the night to learn more about the curriculum, class structure and academic expectations, along with what they can do to help their children succeed in school.

"Any time the teacher is made aware of how proactive you are about your child's education and child's well-being, I think the teachers become a little more engaged," says PTA national president Jan Harp Domene.

She encourages parents, particularly of elementary school-age children, to meet the teacher before the big night to alert them of specific problems or concerns.

"The teacher will have more time and the information will also stay private," says Michelle Ridgway, who teaches reading at Jehue Middle School in Colton, Calif. "As a parent, you don't necessarily want everyone in the room knowing what your child is or isn't doing."

Here are some tips for making the most of the night:

- For younger children, ask how reading is taught, says Nina Senatore, an assistant professor of education at Simmons College. Where does spelling fit in? What is the homework policy?

"Every school will say they have an amazing reading program," says Senatore. "What exactly does that mean?"

- Find out how the school accommodates different math and reading levels. In middle and high school, ask how students are placed in advanced classes.

"Certain kids work faster than others," says Ahn Steininger, a mother of three and co-founder of miniMasters, a cultural learning center in New York. "Some kids need a little help. How do they deal with that?"

- Ask about the extras. Besides the normal curriculum, how much emphasis is placed on the foreign languages, art, music and physical education?

- Be sure to ask about social development. In what ways are children encouraged to get to know each other and work together as a team?

"Is there a lot of emphasis placed on development of the person as a human being - not just the academics?" says Steininger. "Being a good person?"

- Find out what the major projects are, such as research papers and book reports, and get a general idea of when they are due, says Ridgway. "Those are major projects that are going to take some resources and some time," she says.

- Ask how you can help your child succeed. For example, are there certain materials you should have at home?

- Be sure to ask about the best way to communicate with the teacher, says Senatore, whether e-mail, phone or sending a note with your child. For middle and high school students, who have several teachers, she suggests bringing a folder to hold handouts and making sure parents have each teacher's name and contact information.

- Ask about progress reports. "What type of communication about academic progress will I receive from you?" says Ridgway. "I want to know as soon as possible if my child is struggling or not turning in assignments."

- Inquire about how you will be notified in case of an emergency, says Steininger. Will the teacher call you or is there a telephone tree where one parent calls another?

- Back-to-School Night doesn't lend itself to networking with other parents, but Senatore says parents should bring some business cards and try to exchange information. You may need them for homework emergencies, or to double-check field trips or special days.


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