Program that aims at school woes wins praise after successful Texas test

October 09, 1992|By Cox News Service

WASHINGTON -- A learning program developed by a nonprofit institute and tested successfully in Austin, Texas, public schools offers hope for parents alarmed at soaring dropout rates, disciplinary problems and sinking test scores, according to its developer.

"No matter how good schools are, there is no way that spending a few hours a day in the classroom for three-quarters of the year can prepare children for all they need to know," said Dorothy Rich, founder of Washington-based Home and School Institute. "There has to be a concerted effort between the school, the family and the community."

Ms. Rich's 1988 book, "MegaSkills: How Families Can Help Children Succeed in School and Beyond," sought to encourage parents' participation in the educational process by suggesting "recipes" for developing learning skills.

"Our thrust was academic, but not academic in the traditional way," Ms. Rich explained yesterday. "We were showing parents ways to teach learning skills outside of the classroom. For instance, how to talk about math while in the bathtub, or while on a shopping excursion."

"We find the workshops not only teach parents how to build up the confidence of the child, they also build up the parent's confidence in themselves, and keeps them more involved in the child's education," Ms. Rich said.

The Rich approach won praise yesterday at a conference to announce publication of her new book, "MegaSkills in School and in Life: The Best Gift You Can Give Your Child," published by Houghton Mifflin. It is being released this month.

"One of the greatest things about the MegaSkills program," said Alan Ginsburg, director of the Planning and Evaluation Service for the U.S. Department of Education, "is it reaches out to parents with low incomes who don't have strong educational backgrounds themselves and shows them how to teach skills to their children so they can become successful in school."

Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., who also spoke at the reception, said, "Ms. Rich's book should be read by educators across the country."

Because Ms. Rich believed it was important to convey her book's lessons to parents who don't frequent bookstores, she designed workshops in 1989 to teach the skills to caretakers, who would in turn teach them to parents.

Ms. Rich's ideas were put to the test in Austin.

A volunteer for the A+ Coalition, a partnership between businesses and the Austin Independent School District started in 1989 by IBM Corp., read an article about MegaSkills and talked to Ms. Rich about bringing the program to her city.

"We wanted to do something to reduce Austin's dropout rate of 25 percent," explained Kathy Monte, IBM's A+ coordinator in Austin.

"A study done by the coalition showed that the most important ingredient in a child's success in staying in school was the parent. So we wanted to do something to increase the parent participation. MegaSkills seemed like the answer," Ms. Monte said.

The Austin program started in the 1990-1991 school year, and more than 3,000 parents of students in 52 elementary schools participated. In schools with large Hispanic student populations, the workshops were conducted in Spanish.

A study done by the Austin schools' Office of Research and Evaluation tracked 1,196 students of participating families and found they not only improved their own performance over the previous school year, but also outperformed their fellow elementary students on standardized tests, discipline and attendance.

Encouraged by the results, this year the Austin school system has increased the number of schools offering MegaSkills to 60 of the 64 elementary schools in the district.

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