Schools Ask More of Parents

Some require contracts promising help with homework, contact with teachers

For Kay Reinert, the rationale for being involved in her children's school is simple.

If there's a problem, "I've been around enough where the teachers are comfortable with me and I'm comfortable with them," says Mrs. Reinert, who helps out at the Park Elementary school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "The process is less intimidating."

Educators around the country are trying to get more parents to take Reinert's approach. It's no longer just a matter of troops to run fund-raisers and sew costumes for the school play. Parents are being sought for everything from tutoring in the classroom to monitoring homework assignments. And in many cases, the schools are not just asking for help - they're insisting on it.

The programs, many say, help a broad range of students improve their grades, test scores, and attendance, and keep them in school. And studies have indicated that involved parents feel more confident in their role as tutor and foster better relationships with teachers. Sustained interest by parents can also boost teacher morale and overall school achievement.

Buoyed by President Clinton's recent three-day volunteer summit, parent-involvement programs may well see an influx of new enthusiasts, says Heather Weiss, director of the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The approaches cross the spectrum:

*John Hopkins University in Baltimore designed a homework program, which schools can purchase, called Teacher Involve Parents in Schoolwork (TIPS). It requires parents to help out at night. The specially designed assignments might, for example, require a parent-child discussion on jobs or childhood experiences.

*The Tampa, Fla., chapter of Hand-in-Hand provides grants that fund local parent-involvement initiatives. Programs include videotaping student-teachers interactions in class for parents or sending home a "backpack buddy," a satchel full of interactive activities to explore with parents.

*The US Department of Education sponsors a parent-school compact initiative for Title 1 schools, which typically serve low-income families. Parents are required to sign a compact saying that they will be an active part in their child's education. The school, meanwhile, promises to keep parents informed of what's going on in school.

But such programs require careful coordination between educators and parents.

"Everything has to work together. And if you have good schools, good teachers, curriculum, and principals, you are still missing an awful lot if you don't have parents who are involved in their children's education," says Secretary of Education Richard Riley, who has been a strong proponent of such efforts.

On the other hand, he says, without much community support, the number of problems in school halls will grow.

The current push for greater parental involvement may be new, but the concept has a proven track record of success.

Consider the Perry Preschool project in Ypsilanti, Mich. The project selected 123 high-risk three- and four-year old blacks who were born into poverty in the late 1960s.

Some were chosen to be a part of a high-quality active learning program where the teacher visited each student's home once a week. The project also tracked a control group that did not attend preschool.

When these students turned 27, the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti checked up on them. One-third as many program students versus nonprogram students were arrested for drug dealing, and earnings were markedly higher. More owned cars and homes. More participants graduated from high school, and their marriages lasted longer.

A nudge from Washington

Current national efforts have increased since Mr. Riley took his post. He helped create the Partnership for Family Involvement, a coalition of over 2,000 groups that works to find new ways for parents to get involved. The issue is also a focus of the Department of Education's Goals 2000 program, and President Clinton stressed its importance in his State of the Union address.

Local efforts also have grown. Reinert, who heads the art-appreciation program, "Meet the Masters," at her daughter's school and serves on the parent advisory board, found her role through a group called Volunteer Services based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It coordinates volunteer activities in local schools.

Riley says parent involvement is necessary because children spend more time at home than at school. "The parent is the first teacher and is the one whom the child listens to," he says.

The idea sounds simple and practical, he says, but "it is powerful when it comes to the effect it has on education."

Resistance remains

Yet many schools still resist reaching out. Aaron Cyzewski, director of the Hand-in-Hand program, says many teachers are overextended, with little time outside of teaching and grading 150 students. Or they feel parents just won't care. "Some schools have given up on parent involvement," he says.

But schools can overcome these hurdles, says Weiss. Parents sometimes feel apprehensive because of their own negative school experiences, or find teachers unwelcoming. And when many families work two jobs, participation may not be feasible if the goals are unrealistically demanding.

But once a school or program actively reaches out, "parents continue to participate and stay involved," she says.

When Riley met with some of the Title 1 parents who participated in the compact program, he got a very positive response. "When you see a school that is really working, you'll see parents there," says Riley.

For Mrs. Reinert, the most important reason to volunteer is being a role model to her daughters. "I would hope that they grow up with the idea that if something needs changing, they have the power to change it," she says.

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