In December, I attended the Snohomish County Football Officials Association banquet with my son, who was honored with several other student athletes. The guest speaker that night was Masaki Matsumoto, the current head football coach at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Washington. Coach Matsumoto told a compelling story about the football team he formerly coached at Helen Bernstein High School in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles, which has a 96% minority and 58% free- or reduced-lunch population. He knew that in order to save his players from the pulls of the gangs and criminal activities that plagued their neighborhoods, he needed to solicit help: he reached out to their parents.
Coach Matsumoto wrote a letter to his players’ parents and guardians, requesting them to each write their own letters of love and encouragement to their sons. The results of Matsumoto’s efforts were so profound that he was featured in a 2013 article in The Los Angeles Times as well as on ESPN’s television program, E:60.
According to a 2007 meta-analysis published by California State University, Long Beach, there is a statistically significant correlation between parental involvement in their secondary-aged children’s academics (ranging from attending school-sponsored events, checking in with students about grades and homework, and talking about content learned) and academic success (including grades, standardized test scores, and graduation rates). This positive correlation is consistent among diverse cultural backgrounds, socioeconomics, and settings (urban, suburban, and rural).
Listening to Coach Matsumoto’s story and dabbing at my tears, I reflected on my own high school, noticing the similarities between his former football players and my own students. At our Everett, Washington high school, which sprawls across four downtown city blocks, the temptations of the urban setting often lead to deleterious behaviors. We lament the number of students who are “falling through the cracks,” commiserating about the “wild” freshman class who seem bent on following a downward spiral. Sometimes, we implement a plan, such as creating mixed-grade homerooms or assigning upperclassmen mentors. These either fizzle out or only effectively influence a few students.
This past school year, the number of office referrals and general outrageous behavior of the freshman class in general reached a new level, prompting freshman teachers to form their own committee to address the issue. Although they had full support of our administration, the team was still at a loss as to how to solve this growing problem. As a member of our school’s leadership team, I thought, would it be so crazy to replicate Matsumoto’s parent-letter-writing project on a larger scale?
The week following the football banquet, I approached our principal, and he was completely behind my idea. We collaboratively crafted a letter to each freshman parent that begun thus:
“In this technology-laden world, our lives have become a fast-paced blur. Unfortunately, with our busy schedules, we often forget to connect with the people close to us. Teenagers are especially needful and appreciative of kind words from people who are important to them.”
He asked parents to use the included sheet of notebook paper and school-addressed, stamped envelope to write and send words of love and encouragement for their freshman children. I recruited my colleagues in the English Department to stay after school with me for an extra hour to stuff envelopes.
We sent the letters in the middle of March, and received almost 100 responses from the 350 parents who were contacted. Although I anticipated a larger response, I am buoyed by the feedback from several parents who contacted us to express their appreciation and excitement for the project. I am also hopeful that the letters made a meaningful impression on the students who received them, including the freshman whose parent wrote the following:
“We wish nothing but the best for you. I truly want you to reach all of your goals in life. Do not allow anyone or anything keep you from getting to where you want to be. School may get hard at moments and assignments may sometimes seem impossible, but it is not the end of the world. Just give it your best and I assure you things will come out well. And do not be afraid to fail; even the best have failed. Get your stuff together and try again until it can get done.”
Next year, I intend to better promote the project by contacting freshman parents via email and phone calls. However, as the endeavor was not expensive nor time-consuming, I highly recommend it to other schools who may be facing similar challenges. It only takes approximately two hours to complete the requisite steps:
- Work with your principal to craft a letter to parents (or contact me for one!).
- Ask for funding–I received a grant from the PTA for $391 to cover envelopes and postage.
- Work with your office manager to help process purchase orders and print address labels.
- Recruit colleagues to help you stuff envelopes and adhere address labels and stamps.
- Ask your office manager to create a system for distributing the letters once they start coming in.A group of teachers work together after school to stuff and adhere postage and address labels to outgoing parent letters.
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