A Guide for Students and Families - The culture of public schools
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Washington State Public Education:
A Guide for Students and Families

The culture of public schools

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Schools have traditions and customs that we need to know about. Teachers and others who work in schools are busy and may not have time or be able to explain how things work. It's not that they are trying to shut families out. It's just that asking a teacher to explain how school works can be a little bit like asking a fish to describe water.

And of course not all public schools are exactly alike. Some are friendlier than others; some are more informal than others; some are better than others at making people from different cultures feel welcome and understood.

There is also a big difference between elementary, middle and high schools. In elementary schools, teachers expect a lot of family involvement in our children's learning. As students get older, this changes. Middle and high schools want families to come to special events and student conferences, and to make sure our children do their homework, but they usually expect students to be more in charge of their own learning.

At all schools, there are three kinds of family involvement:

  • The first is direct involvement in helping our own children learn. Examples of this are making sure that students read Lat least for 20 minutes a day, or do their homework.
  • The second is involvement that supports our student's whole class or the whole school. Examples of this are volunteering in the classroom, helping raise funds for the school, or advocating for changes we think are needed.
  • The third way to support our children's success is to be advocates for better schools. We can do this by speaking up when we see unmet needs, and talking to our elected school board members or state legislators about our ideas for improvement.

All three kinds of involvement are important, but the most important is helping our own children learn.

Here are some basic traditions that are common to all public schools:

  • Teachers need and appreciate family support. Teachers like to meet the families of their students. Usually, schools have a "families' night" or "back to school night" in the fall, soon after school starts. This is a good time to meet the teacher, and ask questions about what our children will be learning. This is also a good time to ask the teacher how to contact him or her if we have questions during the school year. Some teachers will give us their phone number; others might have another way for us to contact them.
  • Schools publish calendars that every family should have. Every year when school starts, schools publish a calendar that shows when vacations and holidays are, when school will start late or send students home early, when special events are scheduled that families should attend, and when sports and other activities happen. Every family needs to have this calendar to help us plan child care or other special arrangements.
  • Parent-teacher conferences are very important. Elementary schools have parent teacher meetings, called conferences, during year. Middle and high schools may have them just once a year. Each teacher meets with the parents or guardians of each child in the class to talk about what the student is learning, and what the teacher will teach the rest of the year. It's extremely important for families to come to these meetings. If we can't come at the date and time the teacher schedules for us, it's important to call the school and ask for a different time. Most schools will try hard to find a time that works for us. This is also a good time to show appreciation for our children's teachers and other school staff. They are all working hard for our children, and they deserve our thanks.
  • Teachers and principals respect families who are actively involved in their children's education. Sometimes, teachers get frustrated with families who don't come to their children's parent-teacher conferences or do not respond when they leave a phone message. If we don't come to conferences or respond when they call, they may think we don't care about our child's education. This is true in all schools – elementary, middle and high schools.

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For more information:

Questions Parents Ask About Schools

Supplemental Services: Quick Reference for Parents

Public School Choice: Quick Reference for Parents

How to be an Education Advocate

Basic Education Rights and Opportunities in Public Schools

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