The nation's top principals gathered in Washington, D.C. last month, winners of the National Distinguished Principals award. The honor—which went out to 63 principals of public and private elementary schools—is sponsored by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, together with the U.S. Department of Education.

They came from all over country, leaders of elementary schools of all sizes in large cities as well as rural areas, each principal confronted with the issues particular to their region and school. All were nominated for the prestigious award by their peers, bosses or community members and determined by the NAESP to be the best of the best.

I talked to three of the principals, who lead schools in Vermont, South Dakota and Virginia. Each offered advice on what parents everywhere can do to make their schools—and their children—as successful as possible.

  1. Be involved at school. The principals agreed on the importance of school involvement. "The family needs to know what is happening in the school situation," said Brian Hull, principal of Colin L. Powell Elementary School in Centreville, Va. "We cannot do the types of things we do for children and provide the highest level of expectations unless we have the support of parents."
  2. Help your child at home. Remember that your child looks to you as a model, and when it comes to school, the example you set is crucial. "It is really critical to be involved on a daily basis at home," said Michael Friel, principal of Oak Grove School in Brattleboro, Vt. "Talk about what the school day was about and set up structures and systems to get their homework done. If every parent did that, the nation's school system would be in a lot better place now."
  3. Read with your child. This goes for all parents, even if English is not their first language, said Jackie McNamara, principal of Cleveland Elementary School in Sioux Falls, S.D., where there currently is a total of 48 different languages being spoken. "Parents shouldn't be afraid to read in their home language," she said. Showing your child a love for reading is one of the best gifts you can offer, and exposing them to stories and information will only help as they tackle reading assignments in school.
  4. Don't be scared of school. Sometimes this is a cultural issue, said McNamara and Hull, who has 47 different languages spoken in his Virginia school. Parents can help lead schools and show their children they think school is important, but it takes involvement. "It's important that parents not see school as their adversaries; that teachers and principals are here to love kids and we assume their parents do as well and we're all doing our best for the children," Friel said. Education is a partnership and it works best when all sides are involved, he said.
  5. Create a relationship with teachers. Parents who stay in contact with school officials and their child's teachers will hear about successes, as well as difficulties, much more quickly than parents who simply drop their kids off at school and are never seen or heard from again, all three principals said. The problem is that parents may not have had great school experiences or may believe the only time a teacher calls is with bad news. Friel, for example, is working on a program in which every parent gets a call from a teacher, or teacher's helper or aide early on. The goal is to deliver some good news, an update on school and just a "hello" from someone at familiar with their child. "If that first phone call is a positive one, that next one may be a lot easier and you won't be sweating a call from school anymore."

Hull and McNamara said they have also implemented programs to encourage parents to come to school. McNamara, for example, said transportation is provided for all functions and interpreters are available for parents at all meetings and conferences. Hull has set up a welcoming committee, designed to get other parents to meet and greet new families and to make the school transition easier.

It's all about welcoming parents to the school and trying to make them understand that education works best as a partnership, the principals agreed. "We need to very actively let parents know they are welcome in the school," Friel said. "We want them in the school; we value their advice. All the research says when parents are involved in a meaningful way in their kid's schooling, it makes a big difference. It's a no-brainer."

November 23, 2009