Teachers and parents as partners. Various schools pull moms and dads into classroom activities and curriculum planning
Carmichael, Calif. — LET your children see you write. Give them a place to write, and be sure they have pencils, paper, envelopes, and other materials. Provide scrapbooks, bulletin boards, and other handy places to display their youthful compositions. Even the scribbles of a two-year-old merit praise and display. Those kinds of ideas pour out during parent workshops held by the San Juan School District, headquartered in this suburb of Sacramento. While the subject at hand is writing, similar workshops, with the same kinds of tips, are held for reading and math as well.
The concept of a school-home partnership is central to the San Juan effort. In the workshops, for instance, teachers and parents discuss everyday ways of reinforcing math concepts -- perhaps by calculating, with youngsters, the difference between normal prices and sale prices in stores, or working out how long it takes to get to school, given the distance and the speed of the bus. When it comes to reading, says Pat Cobalter, the district's director of staff development and summer school, parents can point out that every story has a ``problem,'' then work with their children to find what it is in a classic like ``Billy Goat's Gruff.''
At-home aid from parents -- stimulating youngsters' interest in basic subjects -- is only one way the San Juan district tries to involve parents in education. Others include recruiting them as classroom aides and welcoming their advocacy of educational goals before the local school board, Mrs. Cobalter points out.
The broad goal behind all this is lasting, direct involvement of mothers and fathers in their children's education. It's a goal that's too often ``overlooked'' by educators, says Ron Warwick, a professor at the National College of Education in Evanston, Ill. He recommends ``required sessions that involve parents'' in drawing up goals for a school. In training school administrators, he says, ``I emphasize strongly a willingness to listen to, and hear, what the community is trying to say and offer opportunities for that to get in.'' Dr. Warwick advocates that representatives of the entire town -- business people, labor, clergy, government, social service institutions, and parents -- offer their input when a school's curriculum is up for changes.
Many professional educators, however, have tended to be leery of parental involvement. The classroom is traditionally the teacher's domain, and the school the principal's. Opening the door to parental involvement could open the way for interference in what's taught and how it's taught.
Do San Juan District teachers harbor concerns that parental involvement could mean parental intrusion? ``Fifteen years ago, you would have had the feeling, `Yes, they are intruding.' But we've worked hard in our district with the idea that education is a joint venture,'' says Cobalter, herself a former teacher and elementary school principal. She points out that the ``creativeness'' of the current workshop program, funded by a grant from Bank of America, came from the district's teachers. The consensus now, she continues, is that direct involvement of parents helps everyone.
Such involvement is crucial, says Warwick. He acknowledges that educators have sometimes tended to become irritated with parents who ply them with questions and complaints. But, he emphasizes, ``there's no question to me that parents who come in and moan and groan are real benefits -- they make us listen.''
Parents who visit classrooms ``can see how things are going,'' Cobalter points out. That breaks down their misconceptions about the way their youngster acts at school vs. at home. Cobalter mentions, too, that parents can be a ``big help'' to teachers -- by organizing fund-raisers, or even lobbying the school board, for needed materials. Parents serving as classroom aides can handle such duties as checking to make sure a group of students gets off to a good start on a spelling or vocabulary exercise. This frees a teacher's time to give special help to other children, she explains.
The San Juan District's emphasis on parental involvement, while hardly unique, is far from commonplace in American education. A just-published survey by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin, Texas, found general agreement among teachers, parents, and administrators that ``parental involvement in education is important,'' says David Williams, director of the laboratory's family, school, and community studies division.
On the other hand, researchers found that teachers in the six-state region covered by the survey receive almost no training in ways to involve parents in the educational process.
Most educators who participated in the survey favor what Mr. Williams calls the ``traditional types of parental involvement'' -- supporting the school's program, receiving information about what's happening in the school, and helping their children at home. When it comes to ``nontraditional roles'' -- parents having a say in things like curriculum content, sitting down with teachers and administrators to figure out ways to improve schools, and advocating change before school boards -- that support tails off sharply. The mothers and fathers surveyed, however, were interested in all kinds of involvement, Williams says.
In general, he observes, the study indicates that ``there is a lot more interest in involvement than opportunity for involvement.'' He sees plenty of work ahead for educators who want to assess the interests of parents in their localities and design ways of translating those interests into programs of benefit to schools. What's ultimately needed, he suggests, is ``a partnership in education to improve the schools.''
Parent-school partnerships can really pay off when children are having trouble, Cobalter observes. During her term as a principal, 10 students were identified as presenting particularly troublesome discipline and academic challenges. Teachers in her school worked with parents to set up a system -- including rewards and punishments -- that would encourage the children to improve.
The home involvement was critical, she says, and not all the parents came through. But ``the parents who stuck with it -- and it was hard -- saw some dramatic changes in their kids' behavior.''
Underlying all such efforts to bring parents more fully into the process of public education, contends Warwick, is a too easily forgotten principle: ``Public schools are for the people and not for the professional.'' In his view, parents, not schools, should make the ``final decisions'' about a child. If educators ever start preempting parental decisionmaking, he says, ``we're in trouble.''