Home environments, no matter how poor, are a citadel of care and concern for children. All parents intrinsically possess the abilities to help their child succeed in school.
Schools should start with what the family has instead of worrying about what it doesn't have.
The Home and School Institute, a national nonprofit organization that urges the development of parents as "their child's most important teacher," is based on these three "nondeficit" ideals.
Says the institute's founder and president, Dorothy Rich: "Even the poorest homes -- and believe me, I have been in some truly poorm homes -- have the most essential aid to learning. They carem about their child."
Dr. Rich, a woman with the warmth of a grandmother and the directness of a teacher, reached these conclusions in the late 1950s. As a high school English teacher in New York City and suburban Washington, D.C., she saw students having "difficulties they didn't need to have, in grammar or spelling -- the basics."
Looking into it, she discovered "the high school teachers said it was the rotten junior highs, and the junior high teachers said it was the rotten elementary schools. The elementary teachers of course said it was obviously the home background."
Then, as a mother of two children, she saw "the wonderful urge to learn in young children. These were the days when we were told, 'Don't teach your child, let the professionals do it.' But I started to teach mine anyway."
Following the leads of Rose Kennedy, Ida Eisenhower, and the mothers of Pablo Casals, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Booker T. Washington, Dr. Rich taught her children to read, write, and do simple math problems at home. The results, she felt, were worth repeating.
So in 1964 she founded the institute to encourage parents who believe strongly in the possibilities and achievement of their children.
Working with fellow educators and parents, Dr. Rich developed a series of "deceptively simple" recipes parents can use to teach basic reading and math skills "in conjunction with schools -- we do not advocate taking the child out of school," she underscores.
Using everyday objects found in the home and community, family teams sort the laundry (categorizing -- a pre-reading skill); get cost estimates for needed items over the telephone (math and reading); make maps of the neighborhood (writing, geography); investigate and chart the home's water system (writing, science); and put toys away (more categorizing).
The results of families using these recipes prove that Dr. Rich is onto something. Her first stab at it -- eight recipes sent home to a few Washington, D.C. first graders -- showed "statistically significant" gains in reading.
At another experiment in Benton Harbor, Mich., the program compared favorably with a similar Title I remedial reading program. The Title I first graders, pulled out of the classroom for extra instruction, showed a 42 percent improvement in 1975 at a cost of $400 per student. The next year the schools sent home Dr. Rich's recipes with selected students, and the pupils showed a 54 percent gain -- at a cost of $4.31 per child.
Encouraged by these results, Dr. Rich had the recipes translated into spanish to use in a large Los Angeles program and in inner city Washington, D.C. Then in 1978, with a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the institute expanded the recipes to include learning information for all family members -- parents as well as teachers.
Initial results of this last effort are enough to impress any parent. Some 90 percent of the mothers and fathers participating in the program's field testing reported that their child could read and understand large numbers better. More impressive, perhaps, is the claim made by 85 percent of these parents: that their child can now follow daily routines without being nagged. What's more, 63 percent of the adults reported they had learned to share household chores as a team.
The recipes prompting these statistics are compiled in a book, "Families Learning Togeher," soon to be published by Simon & Schuster. But the ideas shouldn't stop there, Dr. Rich feels. She urges families to add to and adapt these recipes to meet individual needs.
"No one can individualize learning like a good parent," she says. "Even the best schools can't do it -- they don't have the time and cannot know your child the way you know him."
Asked what she thinks really underlies the success of this approach, Dr. Rich says frankly, "Look, these are nonthreatening games the parents can play with the child. Really, it's a way for the child and parent -- or grandparent, older sister, day-care sitter, whatever -- to get together and show that they care about each other. And that's the key."