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Parents visit middle schools on 1st day of class

In a single-file line not quite as tidy or quiet as the sixth-graders' across the hall, the parents made their way to the Sullivan Middle School media center.

They recited the Pledge of Allegiance, then heard from the principal, who explained what to expect on their first day.

When Assistant Principal Jennise Knight asked, "Parents, are you nervous?" they answered in unison: "Yeah."

School bells rang in a new year across Rock Hill on Monday, but at Sullivan and Dutchman Creek middle schools, it wasn't the first day for just students.

Parents and guardians were invited to spend the day and learn about programs, ask questions, tour the campuses, have lunch and sit in class with their children. They were free to stay for as long or short a time as they wanted.

The principals hope the experience eases anxieties - particularly for parents of sixth-graders - and leads families to get involved with the schools.

"I want them to know we welcome their involvement," Sullivan Principal Michael Waiksnis said.

Parental involvement in education, widely believed to be a key ingredient of student success, can dwindle in middle school.

Numerous studies indicate that after elementary school, parents tend to back off for a variety of reasons:

Some parents feel middle-schoolers need to take on responsibility and learn to be independent.

Others, according to a U.S. Department of Education study, feel they shouldn't help if they're not well versed in the subject.

Middle schools are larger and can seem less inviting than elementary schools, according to the study.

Also, it can be a tumultuous time for preteens, for whom social responsibilities tend to take precedent over academics and being seen in public with their parents.

Waiksnis, who said he's seen the decline firsthand in secondary school, said middle-schoolers need their parents to be involved more than ever, even if they act like it's the last thing they want.

"It's such a challenging time," he said. "They need the parents hovering over them. They need all of the close contact they can get."

For many parents, the experience calmed nerves.

Karen Josey's daughter KaTora couldn't wait for school to start. Karen felt a little different.

"She was happy," Karen said. "She was like, 'Bye, mom.' I was concerned. Is she going to get lost? Is she going to have friends?

"I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, my baby's growing up.'"

But after Waiksnis explained the ins and outs - teachers would walk students to and from classes until they're familiar with their routines, and there are lots of clubs and extracurricular offerings where kids can meet friends - Josey felt better.

"It is awesome," she said. "We get to see exactly what goes on."

Something different

Dutchman Creek has been holding a first day for parents since the school opened in 2008.

The first one was such a success that it's become a tradition.

"You're opening a new school, you want to try something different," Principal Norris Williams said. "It made parents feel comfortable and helped their child to adjust."

Williams said it's helped him forge valuable relationships with dozens of families, many of whom volunteer to help around campus and raise money to meet the schools' needs.

More than 200 parents showed up on Monday.

The day kicked off with a pep rally. Then, students went off to class while Williams met with parents to answer questions.

Next, parents attended a session where they saw how technology is put to use in classrooms - from the interactive white boards that have nearly replaced dusty chalk boards to iPod Touches.

"We remove that barrier that parents are not wanted at the school or on the secondary level," Williams said.

Waiksnis was so impressed with Williams' program that he decided to try it for the first time on Monday. By day's end, about a hundred parents and guardians visited Sullivan, he said.

Williams said the district's other middle schools are considering starting similar programs next school year.

Rawlinson Road Middle School held a special open house for sixth-graders the week before school started.

Principal Jean Dickson said it helps students and parents "familiarize themselves with their teachers, classrooms and the building before our first day to alleviate any anxieties they may have about starting middle school."

Joseph Smith, who recently moved to the area, said spending the day with his daughter Rachel, a Sullivan seventh-grader, was reassuring.

He dropped in on her Spanish class, where teacher Filonila Quevedo was discussing setting goals for the year. He joined Rachel in line afterward, and they chatted along the way to her next class.

"It's fantastic that they did this," he said.

Make it successful

During Sullivan Middle School's first day for parents, Principal Michael Waiksnis offered some tips on how to make it a successful experience. Here's a sampling:

Develop a daily study routine, and help students manager their homework.

Show an interest in their studies by asking specific questions, such as, "What did you learn in science class today?" Discuss their ideas and feelings about school.

Keep in touch with teachers. Check in periodically.

Often, middle-schoolers are scared to ask for help. Encourage your child to ask for help if needed. There are plenty of resources available through the school.

Get students involved in school - extracurricular activities, sports, clubs. Encourage them to pursue their interests and try new things.

Get to know your child's friends.

When times get tough, remind students that most of their peers are in the same situation.