Back-to-school basics for working parents

How can working parents best stay involved in their children’s education? We asked teachers for some advice.

08/21/2012 5:00 AM

08/21/2012 10:28 PM

This school year, some working parents are changing their game plan.

Felicia Alvaro, vice president of finance at Ultimate Software, is one of them. Last year, her teenage daughter was secretive about grades and attendance. But a phone call changed that: Alvaro was called in to meet with her daughter’s guidance counselor and a concerned teacher and learned her daughter’s grades had slipped and she had skipped classes numerous times. “If I’d met with them after the first time, it wouldn’t have happened again. I was busy with work and it was easier to naively trust my teenage daughter,” she said.

In the new school year, Alvaro plans to meet with teachers proactively, every few months, and she will drive her daughter to school every morning “just to open the door to communication.”

Clearly, most of us know parent involvement can make a difference in a child’s education. But at a time when the literacy rate has plummeted and the SAT reading scores were the lowest on record, are working parents too busy earning a paycheck to take an active role in their children’s learning?

With that in mind, I turned to teachers for advice on how working parents with heavy job demands can best stay involved in their children’s education. Their suggestions are aimed at parents of all income levels and all grade levels. The consensus among teachers is that parents don’t need to spend hours volunteering in the classroom or sitting on the PTA board. Involvement, they say, starts with a simple gesture: finding out a teacher’s email address and using it to communicate — from your desk, business hotel, home or nearby library.

In elementary school, where a teacher can be the reason a child looks forward to waking up, meeting that person should be considered a parent’s priority.

Kim Milov, a fourth-grade teacher at Hawks Bluff Elementary in Southwest Ranches, believes parents should try extra hard to attend open house/meet-the-teacher night. “That way, even if you’re at work you have a visual connection with your child at school. You can imagine him sitting in his chair.”

Milov also suggest parents consider taking one day or night during the school year to show involvement. “Maybe you could come for field day, or chaperone a field trip or participate in an evening program like family night.”

Donna Rabinowitz, a first-grade teacher at Central Park Elementary in Plantation, says three key moves will make a difference when your child is in the first few years of grade school. First, look through your child’s work folder on a regular basis to see what he or she is doing in school. If you see your child is struggling with something and you don’t have time during the week, put it to the side. Then, take a half hour out of your weekend to go over that skill. Second, read with your child, even if it’s just 10 minutes a night. Lastly, review your child’s homework every night. If the child did poorly on something, know the reason. Showing your child you care about what they do in school is important: “We only have one short year to mold them. You have many years to mold them.”

For young children, parent-teacher conferences are critical, teachers say. Carolina Garcia, a kindergarten teacher at Coral Park Elementary in Miami, says teachers realize that parents, sometimes, can’t afford to miss work for a conference. But most teachers are willing to set up a phone conference. “Just having that one-to-one conversation with your child’s teacher is important.” In between conferences, she advises parents to read the weekly newsletter teachers usually send home. “If parents are divorced, we can send each a copy.”

Abbi Stoloff, a fourth-grade teacher at Fox Trail Elementary in Davie, says talking to your kids about school, regardless of their age, shows involvement. “If you can’t be involved during the work week, be involved on the weekends.” Rather than grilling them about their day, spark a casual conversation, she advises. “Listen, guide them and be a presence. Ask questions about what they’re working on at school. Good communication makes the day-to-day easier. That’s involvement.”

Unlike grade school, teachers expect more independence from middle school students. But that doesn’t mean parents should back off, teachers say.

Lori Goldwyn, a math teacher at Tequesta Trace Middle School in Weston, suggests regularly looking over your tween’s agenda and making a routine of checking teachers’ websites. “Bookmark them and communicate with the teacher.” Goldwyn says one of the simple steps working parents can take is to spend 10 minutes on Sunday nights talking about the week — what’s due, what needs to be signed, what tests are coming up.

By high school, some parents back off completely. That’s a mistake, teachers say.

Daniel Muchnick, a U.S. history teacher at Miami Norland High School, says working parents of teens can become stay involved with a few keystrokes on a keyboard. Parents should be aware that many school districts use online grade books, he says. “Grades, attendance, assignments…everything is available online.” Parents can also establish alerts so they can be notified by e-mail or text if their child is absent, if an assignment is missing or if a grade point average drops.

Muchnick recommends checking your teen’s grades at least weekly, and if you see he isn’t doing well, email the teacher. “We welcome communication from parents. When parents are involved, grades are better. There’s definitely a connection.”

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