Schools that work: How parents make the difference

Looking for a good New England dinner? Stop by the elementary school in this town of 3,000 people on Friday evening, April 25. You'll find yourself in the midst of a ham-and-bean supper. Who's serving? The parents of the sixth-grade class.

The parents? In an age of media stories about blackboard jungles, drugs and violence in the classroom, and working parents who can't or won't pay attention to their children's education? It sounds almost like something out of Norman Rockwell.

But at Stratham Memorial School, and at hundreds of other local public schools around the country, parents really are involved. The nature of the involvement may have changed over the years, as more and more mothers and homemakers -- once the backbone of the nation's parent-teacher groups -- have entered the work force. But part-time or full-time, the involvement is still strongly evident here, among fathers as well as mothers.

And that, according to educators, is one of the crucial factors in making schools work.

Stratham, by all accounts, is a school that works. Selected last month by the United States Department of Education as one of 257 exemplary public elementary schools, it is headed by David C. Michaud, an affable and unassuming man who this year was honored by US Secretary of Education William J. Bennett as the Outstanding Elementary Principal of the Year for New Hampshire.

Asked what makes his school work, Mr. Michaud is quick to point to the strong backing of the community.

``I don't think there's anything worse for an educational program than poor morale among the staff,'' he says. And morale, he explains further, is directly related to the way the community feels about the school.

How do you measure a community's feeling? One way is by the financial support it provides -- especially in New Hampshire, where relatively low federal and state support means that local communities must pick up a large share of the education tab.

From his neat, sun-filled corner office, Michaud calls attention to the new wing of the building added to accommodate a growing population of students. The addition, he says, was approved a few years ago by a 4-to-1 margin on the first vote. It was a significant victory even in this affluent community -- considering some of the tough bond-issue battles faced by school committees around the nation in recent years. At this year's annual school district meeting on March 10, voters approved a 23 percent increase in the school budget with no questions asked.

``Basically,'' he summarizes, ``people here are interested in education.''

The importance of such interest is hard to underestimate. A recently published US Education Department booklet titled ``What Works: Research About Teaching and Learning,'' lists 41 common-sensical suggestions that are backed up by extensive research. Among them:

``Parents are their children's first and most influential teachers. What parents do to help their children learn is more important to academic success than how well-off the family is.''

``Parental involvement helps children learn more effectively. Teachers who are successful at involving parents in their children's schoolwork are successful because they work at it.''

Here in Stratham, teachers really do work at it. Gail Gagnon, a second-grade teacher and assistant principal, recalls that the Parent-Teacher Organization, which had just about disappeared a few years ago, was regenerated by the efforts of the teachers. Now, she says, volunteers run some of the key enrichment projects in the school. Teachers also go out of their way to cultivate community support -- holding ``coffees'' in homes to discuss school-funding issues, and offering a baby-sitting service so parents can get out to vote.

Michaud even carries that community-relations spirit to the student body. Each week he invites six students -- one from each grade, selected by their teachers to reward some specific achievement that week -- to lunch with him in his office. The effect goes far beyond school: One parent notes that lunch with the principal was unquestionably ``the high point'' in her daughter's first-grade year.

The staff also finds ways to bring all of the parents, one way or another, into the school itself. One effective means: Hold at least one report card each year to deliver only at a parent-teacher conference.

Teachers and parents here do, however, share some concern that the children may in fact be overorganized. So intense are the local sports programs, says parent Ellen Bullard, that children think that ``they need a uniform before they can do anything.''

Fifth-grade teacher Mary Ann Wessells, who worries that television intrudes into creative playing, notes that ``children have been accustomed to turning a knob and being entertained.''

``If children have free time,'' laments another teacher, who asked not to be named, ``they feel guilty.'' Recalling a 1982 blizzard that shut down schools for three days, she says that she imagined all those families gathered around fireplaces and telling stories over popcorn.

Instead, she says, a number of parents rushed out at the first opportunity to buy new toys to keep the children occupied. Nevertheless, all agree on one thing: The community's attentiveness to its children is a cornerstone of successful education.

``If the students feel valued and respected,'' says Michaud, ``if they feel they can be listened to, if they develop a sense of pride in where they are'' -- those kinds of feelings, along with a sound academic curriculum, are the ingredients of a school that works because its community wants it to work.

Second of two parts on exemplary schools. The first part ran April 7. ``Perspectives'' is a Monday column.

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