Three free back-to-school tips for families

The following column originally appeared in several APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during August and September, 2023

Three free back-to-school tips for families


As Minnesota schools open, here are several back-to-school ideas that will help youngsters and won’t cost a cent.

That’s important, because we all want to help young people succeed, and many families are feeling the cost of new clothes or school supplies. But what’s suggested below is free.

1. Download or request a printed copy of the remarkable, free “Reach for the Stars” publication, found here. For many years, Minnesota educators, coordinated by the Synergy & Leadership Exchange, have published this extremely useful document. It lists more than 50 “high-quality academic enrichment programs and activities to supplement classroom teaching and learning and broaden or increase student performance” for students in grades K-12.

The range is astonishing. To name just a few of the opportunities: agriculture in the classroom, art contests, chess, duck stamps, engineering fair, environmental activists, FFA, geography challenge, Lego competitions, math or robotics leagues, poetry, speech competitions, writing contests on various topics, etc.


Cover of the free :Reach for the Stars” Publication

Participating in these or similar activities that build on and help young people develop their interests can have huge — in some cases lifelong — positive impacts. These activities not only help them develop their skills but also help them discover career opportunities.

  1. Help or encourage youngsters to write brief letters to themselves – either looking forward or looking back. This idea was shared by a 20-year veteran teacher from Massachusetts named Nili Bartley. She has fourth grade students write letters to themselves eight years into the future. She writes about the often unexpected powerful, positive messages students send themselves. “There was an astounding amount of positive messages asking their future selves to believe in themselves and to honor how unique they each truly are.” Among the messages students sent themselves were: “Never forget that YOU MATTER.” “You are beautiful. You are a superhero. You have so many superpowers.” “You have a contribution to make, so go out there and make it!”

Here’s Bartley’s blog about students writing these kinds of notes.

Families can adapt this idea by asking youngsters to write something brief – perhaps half to a full page, about what they’d like to accomplish in the coming year, or what they liked last year and what they’ll do differently in the coming year, or what they’d like to do after graduating. (Developing a post-high-school plan with your family is a state requirement, though implementation varies.)

Thinking and writing now, plus reviewing next June what youngsters wrote, helps them set goals, become more reflective, and recognize both strengths and possible priorities.

  1. Finally, given news about student test scores, families may want to check with their youngsters’ teachers to get individual results for last and previous years. School, district and statewide scores and other data are found here.

As MDE Commissioner of Education Willie Jett told me on Aug. 24, “Students are more than their test scores.” Agreed. But test scores, especially looking at whether students are improving, is one tool families can use to help youngsters. Kevin Burns, MDE communications director, told me individual test scores were sent to schools several months ago. Some schools share test scores in November, but families might want to have this information at the beginning of the school year.

In summary, as a famous saying goes, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., has been a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president. He co-directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome: