No parent left behind

You might call it the science-fair syndrome.

Every year, remembers Julie Woestehoff, "my husband and I would be [at the school], asking when the science fair was, wanting to help. And somehow it was always Sunday night at 10 o'clock - 'Oh, I need a show board, I need this, I need that.' It was supposed to be done over two weeks' time and we'd just be finding out."

It's a familiar scenario for many parents, and a memory Ms. Woestehoff laughs at now.

But the point it highlighted for her - the abysmal communication that often exists between schools and parents - is a serious issue.

Educators have recognized for some time that parent involvement plays a critical role in student achievement. Especially in urban districts it has become increasingly clear that failure to enlist parents as partners seriously hampers any school-reform efforts.

But it's only recently that many schools, districts, and states have been taking concrete steps to help what's often a tense relationship.

Particularly in urban areas, school officials often complain that parents are too busy or not sufficiently caring to get involved at their childrens' schools.

Yet at the same time many parents say they feel threatened or unwelcome, and that what many principals mean by "parent involvement" is really bake sales and book drives. The result: open hostility between people who ultimately all have the same goals.

To improve this unhappy state of affairs, the sweeping 2002 No Child Left Behind Act has for the first time put in place laws intended to foster parent involvement. The mandates included in the federal act range from better communication on such things as test scores and parents' options to requirements that schools develop a "school-parent" compact and a plan to involve parents.

At this point, most of the reforms still exist more on paper than in practice. But just formally recognizing the importance of the issue - the need for involvement that's truly collaborative - is a step in the right direction, say educators.

"People in the [school] community have to see that communicating well with families is part of their professional job," says Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "That's explicit now. If No Child Left Behind really were implemented as intended, it would really be quite exciting."

A number of states and districts are also trying out their own strategies.

In Arkansas, a new law requires all districts and schools to write plans for involving parents, and to designate a "parent facilitator" at each school. It encourages everything from cards with tips to help children succeed - included in local businesses' paychecks - to setting up local "parent information centers."

New York City is going even further, spending $43 million to hire a full-time parent coordinator for every school in the city. That means 1,200 coordinators, plus a support network.

"Before, we had 32 people working with parents. Now we have 1,300," says Jean Desravines, director of New York's Office of Parent and Community Engagement. He says the decision came after months of meetings with city parents revealed that most felt unwelcome and uninformed.

Here in Chicago, parents have had a greater voice than in any other urban district in the country. Reforms that year created a local school council for every school in the city, with authority to hire the principal and renew his contract, develop an annual school-improvement plan, and set the school's budget.

Each LSC has a parent majority - an aspect that Woestehoff's organization, Parents United for Responsible Education [PURE], fought hard for when the law was passed. (Other members include teachers, the principal, and nonparent community members.)

"It sort of puts Chicago parents on the same level with a suburban parent," says Woestehoff.

"A suburban parent comes in with a sense of entitlement: This is my child, and this is what's going to happen. Big-city parents don't usually have that edge. But with the local school council behind you, they're not as likely to try to blow [the parent] off."

Some LSCs have also been key to helping turn their schools around, and to changing the relationship between the administration and the parents.

South Loop Elementary is a prime example.

The 400-student, red-brick school, which sits in a neighborhood of small, well-kept homes just south of Chicago's dramatic skyline, has undergone big changes in the last few years.

Lauren Rhone, a South Loop resident for 12 years and a mother of two young children, says just a few years ago the school felt closed off, middle-class families didn't want to send their children there, and there wasn't a single map or globe in the entire building.

She and other community members helped elect a strong new LSC that replaced the principal and reached out to families. They got a tuition-based preschool, an after-school program, and a summer school in place.

From the beginning, Pat Baccellieri, the new principal, was determined to make parents an integral part of the school. He started an open-door policy that encouraged parents to meet with him, and had teachers send home monthly newsletters and make themselves available to families.

He also invited parents to afternoon workshops where teachers would demonstrate how they were teaching math or reading. "The traditional model for school-parent relations is that when their child is in trouble, the school contacts them. We're trying to contact them for other reasons," Mr. Baccellieri explains.

It's that change in mind-set - a shift from seeing parents as nuisances to recognizing them as potential partners - that seems to be key.

Todd Jungenberg, whose oldest child is in kindergarten at South Loop this year, says he or his wife talks to his daughter's teacher several times a week, by phone or e-mail. "When she asks for volunteers, she gets 12 parents."

But even with the school's commitment to reaching out, there have been challenges.

Ellen Lorden, secretary of the South Loop LSC and the mother of a second-grader, says the family-involvement group she serves on has had a much harder time bringing in parents of older children, used to the system under the former principal.

"It's one thing to welcome parents that are going to be engaged anyway," she says. "It's another to engage parents who aren't involved.... We've got a long way to go to make everybody feel comfortable."

In New York, Suzanne Howell took on the role of parent coordinator at Brooklyn's P.S. 38 this fall.

Ms. Howell says she's found that face-to-face interaction, often as simple as talking to parents when they drop their kids off at school, is one of the best ways to reach uninvolved parents.

"I've realized a lot of parents just want you to listen to them," she says.

The program has had some skeptics, who wonder if coordinators will serve as an unnecessary buffer between parents and principals, or whether schools that already had good parent involvement might have to put the resources to better use.

But Howell doesn't see how having parents in the schools more often can fail to help. "In the end," she says, "everything we do can only benefit the children."

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