Back to School - Can We Ease the Administrative Transition?

September 6, 2011

We all talk a lot about collaborations that can make it easier to improve outcomes and change the way we do business for children and youth. I was reminded of this in a recent discussion with my sister, who has four young children. The beginning of the school year is a good opportunity to start fresh and with my oldest nephew starting high school, it's got me thinking about how we (the proverbial village) can make it a better experience than ever before. 

Case in point: today is the first day of school.  My youngest nephews are in elementary school, my niece in middle school, and my newphew at the local high school.  My sister has been going crazy trying to get all the information that she needs to get all four kids ready for school.  With class schedules, school sports schedules, other after school activities, etc., getting the logistics of four kids in three schools worked out can be a nightmare.  

And that doesn't even touch on the back to school shopping with two to four-page supply lists. Per kid.  It can easily cost $200 per child just to buy school supplies – Kleenex, white board cleaner, hand sanitizer, paper towels, etc.  (Too  many schools can’t afford these basic supplies anymore.)  It’s a mess.

On top of all this are the questions about the kids teachers, classes and additional educational supports.  A last minute surge in enrollment left the elementary school scrambling to rearrange class assignments. So right up until this past weekend my sister wasn't sure if the youngest boys' were still assigned the teachers they'd been given last June when school let out. Our family has been part of Seaview Elementary for the past nine years, so my sister knows the teachers well and advocates for those who best fit her children's needs. The uncertainty about class assignments just added one more layer of stress to the multitude already associated with back to school.

All of which leads me to this.  Even though my sister is a veritable pro at the chaos that is back-to-school, every year she has the same question:

Why, when the kids are all in the same school district, can't back-to-school and transitions be better aligned?

The schools work together, but only very superficially.  They pass the kids’ grades on to the next school, but other information gets lost. For example: children with learning disabilities often have to be re-tested and re-diagnosed to receive services. Interpersonal issues between students isn't shared, even when past events are serious and have implications for things like class schedules (ie, cases of bullying).

When my sister has questioned the principals, teachers and district administrators about the lack of coordiation between schools, the response she gets is this: it is the responsibility of every parent to ensure that her kids get the education they need. I believe it is true that parents (with support from grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors, churches, etc.) need to be actively engaged in their children's education.  

I also believe, though, that school administrators need to stop passing the buck and do a better job of educating our students. That means good teachers, good curriculum, and effective, verticaly and horizontally aligned services and administration.

Do others experience this? Are there local or state innovations making this easier? Let me know!

Tara James is SparkAction's Sr. Outreach & Engagement Associate, and an actively involved aunt to four school-age kids.

Tara T James


Schools are soooo complicated, particularly high schools. This is the result of a high school program which enables, essentially, an infinite number of permutations of student goals, programs, and schedules. Add to that state education code, which was thousands of pages in California. Add school budget issues. And add liabilities and legal conundrums…. Put that all together and you have what we call in the education biz, a mess.

There are schools that do better jobs on this than others with transitions. I was particularly proud of the work we did (and I think they still do) in Black Oak Mine Unified School District in California.

Kindergarten: The community Ready by 5 (hmmm where did that title come from?) organization works with pre-k programs to help parents prep their children for school. They publish a wonderful K parent guide. They use a county-wide prek assessment across all preschools, and there are various parent education nights to get parents and their children ready for the transition. Before school starts, K teachers and the principal invite the parents to bring their children to an orientation a few days before school starts. Kids and the parents ride a yellow school bus together to relieve stress, learn bus safety, and have a fun ride. They come back to the school and parents drop off their children at class (an effective transition and can be very challenging for children and parents). The children have a 45 minute time with their teacher and volunteers, mainly singing and playing. The parents meet with the principal and learn all kinds of stuff about being ready. At times we were able to get a grant to pay for a one week Pre K summer camp to extend that orientation…

Elementary to Middle School: Best transition – The Georgetown Divide has K-8 schools – I could go on and on about why this is so great, including that multiple school issue for parents of multiple kids as Tara points out. But there are so many other reasons…

Middle to High School: Georgetown Divide Ready by 15 (which may no longer exist) was a group of adults, high school and middle school students that worked on success for 12-14 year olds. They took a deep role in bridging between the middle school and high school. High school students would go to the middle schools about 3-4 times per year and do presentations on the high school, bullying, anti-tobacco, anti-drugs, etc. There was a dance and a football game in which the 7th and 8th graders from the two schools would combine at the high school.

In the spring, the counselor from the high school would meet with the incoming ninth graders and their parents in group and individual meetings to talk about their schedule and prep them. During the summer before they started ninth grade the parents would have a “Day on the Green” which was a full day of new games, orientation, tours, getting their schedule, pizza, all being guided by the Link Crew who are 11th and 12th grade students who buddy up with incoming freshman (this is an actual program which is run in many school districts – fantastic.) There is a parent orientation and an opportunity to meet the principal and administration. There is also a freshman core program where the teachers team and the students travel in a cohort to English, core science (bio/physics), and PE for a year. There are shared projects and a shared responsibility for student success during the ninth grade.

One program was my favorite and has been incredibly successful in building a culture in which kids and parents were excited about starting at the high school. For about six years, we were able to have all ninth graders, their teachers and the youth advocate, go whitewater rafting as a large group. The company we used was superb at creating a safe environment and building memories which last well beyond high school. This program cost $20,000 to $30,000 per year…

I am sure there are many examples of help for parents and youth to get ready for school and help for parents to manage those incredible schedules and logistics, but these are a few. I also know that every school principal strives to do well by parents, but just keeping the doors open, being staffed, following the laws, and making sure everyone is safe in an underfunded environment is actually an amazing feat!!!
Rob Schamberg, Chief Administrative Office of the Forum for Youth Investment and former superintendent

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