Finding One's Connections

Many schools know parental involvement is critical to a student's success and are trying new ways to inspire parents into action. New York State, for instance, has begun a program to engage parents with public schools - and that doesn't just mean asking fathers to volunteer at bake sales. In New York City, 1,200 "parent coordinators" were hired last summer for the school system. In Arkansas, parents are receiving "kits" explaining how they can work with teachers.

These efforts reflect a broad trend to create new types of networks in communities that focus on common goals. Civic engagement by citizens is essential for any society. And someone who has chronicled a historic decline in civic activities among Americans - and also wants to reverse it - is Harvard professor Robert Putnam.

In his latest book, "Better Together: Restoring the American Community," he and coauthor Lewis Feldstein have chronicled many new types of grass-roots associations, or what Dr. Putnam calls America's "social capital." These networks go beyond joining a Rotary Club. Many are forming on the Internet., for instance, is an online community that creates forums in different cities where participants can make friends, collaborate on projects, or engage in commerce.

Americans, who often cocoon themselves in the evening before the blue light of a large-screen TV, need new ideas for civic connectivity. Creating new ways to bring parents into schools is one noticeable effort.

The "Better Together" book looks at unusual examples, such as networks of seniors tutoring schoolchildren, or unemployed shipyard workers taking on roles as community storytellers, or grandparents who find a network where they can be caregivers. One example is a Boston neighborhood that came together to reclaim a wasteland of vacant buildings and trash.

Putnam isn't convinced that online communities can achieve the same level of change that real networks can. Face-to-face communications can often carry deeper, nuanced meanings that bind people in ways more difficult to achieve through e-mail or instant messaging.

Making personal connections in one's community is an obvious first step toward helping others. It's the step that takes you out of the front door and away from the comfort of your home and toward taking responsibility for a broader community. It can also be the most difficult step. What helps is having many more innovative models for civic engagement.

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