ON the night of the Central Elementary School open house, the teacher's enthusiasm was contagious. The classroom was decorated with the children's drawings and notebooks. Each was a promise of achievements to come.
As Pat Cordery zestfully recounted her goals for the class, parents couldn't help getting caught up in the excitement.
Then she said it:
``Of course, much of what can be accomplished here depends on you. I can cover the basics, but with 28 children in the room, one person can only do so much. It's your support and your active participation that make a rich and varied school experience possible. Won't you please help by signing up to volunteer?''
The request came as a jolt.
To many parents already feeling stretched to the limit by responsibilities to work and family, it felt like one more burden. Besides, some asked themselves, what could I do that would really count?
A little bit can go a long way, maintain teachers and other proponents of parental involvement in the public schools.
According to educator Joyce Epstein, research over the last two decades shows that parent involvement is an important component of effective schools. Such involvement can take many forms, requires no special skills, and can be less time-consuming than one might think.
Ms. Epstein is director of the Baltimore-based Family and School Connections Project at the Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools (Johns Hopkins University).
``The evidence is clear that parental encouragement, activities, and interest at home and participation in schools and classrooms, affect children's achievements, attitudes, and aspirations, even after student ability and family socioeconomic status are taken into account,'' Epstein writes.
Helping in the classroom
In those schools, like Central, where parents are urged to volunteer in the classroom, teachers recognize that few can volunteer often. Yet coming into the room, even if it's only once or twice a year, is a significant contribution.
What's more, teachers maintain that it is not necessary for parents to have any experience with teaching methods to be really useful. Simply having another person in the room can be invaluable.
``When there is another adult I can get twice as much done!'' says first- and second-grade teacher Cindy Lambert.
``Drawing a picture - then dictating a story about it - is a very important process in learning to write. This can't happen as often as I'd like when I'm alone in the room.''
Taking dictation is something any literate parent can be shown how to do.
Parents can also do things such as:
Spell words for children's personal dictionaries.
Read to a small group of children or listen to them read individually.
Play math games.
Practice with word-recognition flash cards.
``In the typical school setting, you have one classroom teacher, and perhaps an aide or a support teacher. But essentially children are being educated by a small number of people with little range in background,'' says Christiann Dean, author of the Cornell Cooperative Extension pamphlet, ``Becoming Part of Your Child's School.''
She continues, ``Parents can bring a tremendous cultural and experiential diversity. Classroom studies spring to life when family members share travel, job, and other experiences.''
Take a unit on birds, for example.
With less than an hour's preparation, one father, who is a bird enthusiast, made a simple matching game using his collection of bird's wings and xeroxed pages from a field guide. He brought these to school and spent his lunch hour playing the game with the children.
Other examples of parents' contributing their expertise: For a unit on local ethnic groups, one parent showed slides of her trip to the Soviet Union. Another brought in foods traditional to his Greek homeland. A third created games to play with the children that would increase their sense of black awareness.
For an insect unit, a parent with an interest in entomology brought in part of a university insect collection and a microscope so that each child could look at different parts of the insects under magnification.
For a music unit, a parent who plays a stringed instrument performed for the children. Then the parent showed how the instrument worked and the range of things that could be done with it.
For many parents working outside the home, coming in during school hours is simply impossible. Volunteering on an occasional evening or weekend can be equally valuable.
``I couldn't pull off our annual nature center overnight without help from parents,'' says third-grade teacher Marion Rosenbaum.
``Parents who don't do anything else throughout the year bring along their younger children, cook supper with us, and spend the night,'' she continues. ``Their giving just this brief amount of time makes possible one of the most popular events of the year.''
Refurbishing playgrounds, assembling new equipment, sprucing up classrooms, helping with a play, and serving at the teacher's breakfast are some of the once-a-year events that couldn't happen without volunteers.
Helping from home
In a study on parent involvement conducted in 600 Maryland schools, Epstein found that 70 percent of all parents never went to the school building in any volunteer capacity.
``In many places it's impossible for parents to get there. They should be able to see that, with some guidance from teachers, effective school volunteering can be done at home,'' she says.
``Even something as simple as sending in snacks a few times a year shows a child that you recognize what he does in school is important enough for you to want to contribute to it,'' says kindergarten teacher Pat Cordery.
``The child who brings snacks feels so good about himself,'' she adds. ``You can tell the difference it makes from the children who never bring it.''
Other things parents can do at home:
Mount displays of children's work.
Make additional copies of games and other classroom materials.
Type children's stories, class lists, curriculum materials.
Collect pictures from magazines.
See that the school board agenda is published in the local newspaper.
Buy small needed items, such as pencil grips for the special education program.
Provide child care so that another parent can volunteer in the classroom.
Recruit other parents to participate in special events.
Arrange for field trips by contacting local businesses and other places of interest.
Invite the class to tour your work place.
Collect recyclable materials, such as egg crates, lids, spools, 35mm film cases, paper rolls, buttons, corks, coffee scoops, fabric scraps, and the like.
``We believe that parents are an important ingredient in the educational process both in school and at home,'' says Nancy Berla, director of casework for the National Committee for Citizens in Education. ``Their involvement can take many forms. Volunteering is only one of them.''
For more ideas, call the NCCE's toll-free telephone number: (800) NETWORK. From Maryland and Alaska, call (301) 997-9300.