Credit: Courtesy of Thomas Courtney

 If you asked me two years ago which student owned a guinea pig named Max or eight dogs, I am certain I could not have told you. But now I can. It’s strange to be in a position where we see so much of our students’ lives through a computer screen, and yet also feel so disconnected from the students and the families we serve. Now, as schools and their communities seek to re-establish these relationships, state and district leaders are considering how to spend tax dollars for this very purpose. How can we best do it?

Years ago, I was a part of a faculty that needed to re-establish ties with our community. Here at Chollas-Mead Elementary, a Title 1 school where 93% of our students are considered economically disadvantaged, we decided to create ties that were — in a word — fun. In doing so, Chollas-Mead went from empty open houses to packed celebrations of all kinds, and many of our teachers have become both teacher and school parent, me included.  The lessons we learned then can help any school in California now figure out how to spend money in ways that work to reconnect schools with their communities.

How did we connect? For me, it started with a plate of potato salad the summer my own child was about to begin kindergarten.

That July, my wife and I received an email from our son’s soon-to-be kindergarten teacher at a local charter school. Was there a problem?

Just the opposite. The email announced a pre-kindergarten play date at the park. Families were invited to come, meet one another and have a potluck. Never having heard about such a thing at the school where I taught, I stood agape while parents around me socialized, my son and his new soon-to-be classmates laughing all around us.

What I saw that afternoon fundamentally changed my teaching.

Holding my plate of potato salad, I stared as parents scheduled new play dates with one another. They discussed school programs and figured out carpools.

Classmates began their school careers as friends. Back-to-School Night featured more good-to-see-you’s than nice-to-meet-you’s. Parents knew the names of children, and children knew the names of parents, many of whom would serve as classroom volunteers because they felt welcome.

Returning to my own classroom that year, I picked up my roster from the office and studied my students’ names. Their ID numbers. Their genders. Their first and last names. A mark that designated if they had asthma. I knew then that things were going to change, but I had no idea how I would change, too.

The following year, at my first ever Ice Cream and Library Night event, the students selected Epic Bulldogs as a class name, met tutors, and their families laughed together at the neighborhood’s favorite heladería. I stood this time holding a pistachio paleta, watching as the magic unfolded around me.

That year, I had perfect parental attendance at Back-to-School Night, where we played Ice Breaker Bingo. The same thing happened at parent-teacher conferences.

Courtesy: Thomas Courtney

A proud parent takes photos during a student assembly at Chollas-Mead Elementary School near San Diego.

Each month, I created an “optional” classroom event, making sure it was fun enough that my own children would want to attend. I figured if they’d go, so would my families. I was right.

Courtesy: Thomas Courtney

A student embraces Mr. Jeff Smith, a volunteer karate instructor with the Dolphin Defender program at Chollas-Mead.

Twelve years later, Mr. Courtney’s Star Night is a tradition. So is Ice Skating Night, Opera Night, Gardening Sunday at the EarthLab and the End of Year Fishing and Barbecue at Chollas Lake. Then came the Dolphin Defenders Karate Program and the Dolphin Splash newspaper.

I had transformed my teaching and my class. Meanwhile, our incredible principal transformed our school. Under her leadership, Chollas-Mead Elementary began to host packed talent shows, winter celebrations, cocoa with Santa, daughter or son dances, movie nights, sports events at recess with cheering parents, and family Fridays. Our principal, listening to her community while her husband grilled hot dogs, brought back assemblies, art, theater and music programs. On Power Tuesdays, second and third graders even learned how to walk the tightrope with the Fern Street Circus.

Welcome side effects emerged among the students schoolwide, just as I had seen in my classroom: They worked together and stayed on task; more completed their in-class assignments and homework; they were engaged in school, and their parents participated in their children’s education. Student academic achievement test scores in both math and reading rose.

The elements that make a successful classroom and a strong community were there all along; we just hadn’t been listening to the experts — our families.

What builds bridges with parents. 

  • Extracurricular activities, arts and other programs. Typically, these are the first things cut from the budget because they do not show rises in test scores immediately.
  • Formal and informal conversations with parents about what they want from their school.
  • Advertising that school is about much, much more than academic test scores.
  • More teachers of color. Recruiting ranks of young, white teachers from affluent families who talk incessantly to parents about how their children must pull up their academic test scores is a recipe for disaster.

What creates barriers to parental participation.

  • Tall school gates.
  • Dry school committee meetings held at times convenient for the staff but impossible for parents.
  • Teachers who don’t look as if they come from the community and don’t live or shop in the neighborhood.
  • Talking down: Well-intentioned school administrators constantly telling parents why they should care about low test scores.

As this pandemic recedes, we certainly will need to allocate money to reinvigorate, revitalize and reconnect our school communities. But we also need to create authentic opportunities for our families and teachers to reacquaint themselves. These moments shouldn’t be done in a transactional space that forgets we are all human. This is a fundamental truth at Chollas-Mead Elementary. At our school, involving our parents with their child’s education starts with the word “fun.”


Thomas Courtney is the San Diego Unified School District Teacher of the Year, a Teach Plus, California, Senior Policy Fellow, and a fifth grade teacher at Chollas-Mead Elementary school. Both his son and daughter have attended Chollas-Mead due in part to the positive climate staff have created there.

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