FIVE-YEAR-OLDS at the Meadowbrook School may be more tuned in to art and culture than the average adult. So far this school year, they've seen a ballet company, a string quartet, a storyteller, a Japanese shadow-mime show, a jazz trio, and a folksinger.
No teacher had to work overtime. No principal had to skip a lunch hour. The masterminds behind the scenes were a few energetic parents.
``It's the most fun job,'' says Barbara White, the mother of two children who attend the private school. She and some other parents booked the acts and brought the performers into the school.
Such grass-roots ``arts activism'' thrives in both public and private schools in their community of Weston, Mass., and in 60 other towns in the Boston area. But Mrs. White and her friends don't work entirely alone. They are supported by a substantial parental network here called the West Suburban Creative Arts Council (WSCAC).
``We're all mothers who are interested in the arts and in enriching our children's education,'' said Donna Neff at a recent council meeting of some 150 women from different towns. By far most participants do not work fulltime outside the home.
``It's been our concern that the arts are often the first to go when there are budget restraints,'' Mrs. Neff says. But by using the council's resources, parents can help bring programs to their schools that not only entertain, but enhance the curriculum as well.
``We preview the performers so that we're sure they'll be appropriate for our school's needs,'' Neff says. On file cards, parents critique artists they have watched at festivals and in other schools. Then they turn in the cards at council meetings. Members can refer to the file for descriptions of acts and their prices.
Not just well-to-do suburbs like Weston are involved. Paul Andrews, superintendent of schools in Woburn, Mass., says the council represents a ``wide level of lower-, middle-, and higher-income people'' who are ``truly interested in cultural-awareness issues.''
At the last WSCAC meeting, tables were covered with brochures and flyers on various children's artists. Women culled through them like hungry talent scouts, searching for dynamic performers. Some acts focused on culture - chamber music and theater. Other programs connected more directly to classroom subjects such as science (``What's an Insect?''), botany (``Trees are Terrific''), or marine education (``Mr. and Mrs. Fish'').
One after another, women stood up to tell about performers they had seen or to ask questions about ones they hadn't. Many took notes, straining forward to catch every word.
`IT all started in my living room more than 10 years ago,'' says Pat Benedict, a founding member. She was on the creative-arts committee of her local parent-teacher group in Weston. As she worked to bring programs to her school, ``I met others in surrounding communities who were doing the same thing.'' She and about 10 other mothers decided to pool their resources.
``I was amazed that anything like this was going on anywhere!'' says Christine Kinch, describing her feeling when she first went to a council meeting years ago.
Now Mrs. Kinch is heading up her own group in Worcester, Mass., called the Central Massachusetts Cultural Council. Like several spinoff groups, it's patterned on the WSCAC.
Kinch says the small towns in her area usually don't have money in their budgets for special events, so she applies for state grants and finds other sources for funding in the towns. ``This is what I can do to contribute to my community.''
``The reason I got involved was because I could do it at home,'' says Betty Haviland, mother of four, who linked up with the two-year-old Worcester-based council. A former teacher, Mrs. Haviland became an arts activist through her PTA in Grafton, Mass. Now she spends close to 35 hours a week scheduling performers, previewing shows, and working on funding.
``It gets in your blood. You open the paper and you see something and say `Hey, this would be great!' So then I drag my whole family to preview it, and I use my kids as a judge,'' Haviland says.
Council members stress the need to work with teachers and administrators. ``We don't want the teachers to feel we're intruding into their school day,'' notes Kinch. Many teachers feel pressured to stick to their own schedules. But ``when they see you putting your best effort forward'' to support them, ``they really do respond to that.''
Dr. Gary Baker, assistant superintendent of schools in Acton, Mass., has had a good experience working with the parents. He says they work closely with teachers, seeking their approval and suggestions. As a result, ``we've had some very fine programs.''
``My kids' outlook on life is different - they know what opportunities are available to them,'' says mother Betty Haviland. ``And kids see that parents care, not just the teachers.''