In Minnesota parents forge closer bonds with schools
Minneapolis — The ''Keep Out'' signs are coming down in Minnesota. ''For 150 years we have been telling parents that we would take care of the education of their children, because we were the experts,'' says Dr. Michael Hickey, superintendent of schools in St. Louis Park, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb of 43,000. ''At one time that made sense. Many parents were immigrants without much education, and professionals were needed to do the job. Now there has been a change in philosophy. Parents are well educated and should have a say in the educational process.''
''We've had to rethink our whole philosophy,'' says Dr. Arthur Bruning, superintendent in the neighboring town of Hopkins. ''As schools have tended to get bigger, parents and teachers have lost contact. Teachers often don't live in the district, and parents and teachers seldom know each other outside the school environment. We need to strengthen the home-school bond and keep communication open.''
This new philosophy, bolstered by renewed interest in communication, has opened the way for parents to help financially beleaguered schools in this area in a variety of ways. They serve on committees that deal with discipline and drug abuse. They advise on curricula, long-term planning, and class size. They work on budgets and suggest building usages.
Parents teach mini-courses, develop enrichment programs, tutor students, hear book reports, work in school libraries, and attend teacher-oriented, in-service workshops.
In Hopkins the school system encourages communication between parents and teachers by holding informal monthly meetings where school problems are discussed. In the nearby suburb of Robbinsdale the school board maintains an ''open mike'' policy at its meetings. Parents are first on the agenda and are invited to step to the microphone to voice their concerns.
''There are as many concerns now as there were when the district was growing, '' says Virginia Zimmer, secretary to the Robbinsdale director of staff relations. ''These are hard times, and there are difficult decisions. People are really concerned.''
Dr. Bruning maintains that parent participation works most effectively when it is well organized. ''It was easier in some ways when we dealt only with our paid personnel. They were more easily controlled. Parent participation takes planning. But we get a great deal of information from parents. They come from very diverse backgrounds - business, industry, the arts. They can contribute a lot.''
Not everyone is happy with the new philosophy. Some educators believe that too much parental input slows the decisionmaking process. There are parents who suspect school officials of using parent advisory councils as window-dressing. At least one member of the St. Louis Park Parent-Teachers Association believes the enormous potential of the PTA is being overlooked in the rush to new ways of parent involvement. And in the delicate maneuvering that usually accompanies school closings, parents are sometimes too emotionally involved to be effective. In Robbinsdale these emotions have resulted in parents filing a lawsuit following a decision to close one of three high schools.
Yet the barrier between parents and schools is coming down, and a breath of fresh air can be felt. In St. Louis Park that fresh breeze carried with it an atmosphere of support for high school officials when they began stringent enforcement of a law forbidding smoking by minors on school property. When the district closed the latest of seven shuttered schools and reorganized the remaining elementary schools into four education centers - two for K-3 and two for grades 4-6 - parents were prepared, and generally accepting. There is some regret that parents did not serve on the transition team that oversaw the changeover, but parents did help develop standardized behavior guidelines for all elementary schools. Recommendations included recognition for good behavior as well as punishment for unacceptable acts.
In its most comprehensive and innovative experiment outside its ivory towers, the St. Louis Park schools invited the entire community to brainstorm ideas for the schools of the future - a 21st-century educational system for today's students. Hundreds of community members, school staff, students, and the school board identified ''preferable futures,'' Dr. Hickey reports, and developed strategies and programs for making them a reality. Parents served on evaluation teams and helped write the reports to the educators.
Hopkins, Robbinsdale, and St. Louis Park are experimenting with school-based management - schools deciding their own needs and controlling their own funds. Parents will serve on advisory committees during these pilot programs.
Programs for the ''gifted'' child benefit particularly from parental involvement. Joel Anderson, advocate for the gifted at the St. Louis Park junior high school, believes parents help give perspective to educators' work. ''They point out something, and you wonder why you didn't notice that before,'' he says.
Norma Morse, a mother of three students in the Hopkins schools, believes parents are beginning to recognize their potential. ''There's a new mood among parents,'' she says, ''a mood that they can change things.''
In these three Minneapolis suburbs parents already have.