A school reaches out to draw its parents in

Campaign: Southeast Middle goes door to door to survey parents on how the school's doing -- and what needs to be done.

April 23, 1999|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

It's a well-known educational truism: The more parents are involved in their children's school, the better the students perform.

At Southeast Middle School this week, staff and pupils took to the streets of Southeast Baltimore as part of a grass-roots strategy to pull parents into the school. More than 150 pupils, staff and community members knocked on doors and asked Southeast Middle parents to talk about what they like and don't like about the school.

In groups of three, the staff and pupils knocked on doors to 368 homes. When no one was home, they left a flier asking parents to go to school for a potluck dinner at 6: 30 p.m. Tuesday.

The effort, organized through the local neighborhood association, is one of many attempts to teach parents that they have the power to change their children's schools.

Some parents were suspicious at first, particularly when they met teachers or the principal. "Is he or she in trouble?" was the first question Principal Jane Fields said she heard from parents when she arrived. But when it became clear that she was just paying a visit, she said, parents relaxed and began to talk.

"I am a firm believer that parents don't come into schools because schools aren't welcoming," said Anita Wiest, the school's social worker, as she strode down an East Baltimore street with eighth-grader Kelly Tate and Ron Balcer, a member of the South East Community Organization board, which organized the event.

At the first house, parent Sharon Rich said she wanted to come to the school, but her son, being a typical teen-ager, hated having her there. And sometimes, she complained, teachers hassled her for not carrying a visitor's pass.

"There is not too much Southeast has to change, except getting parents involved," she said.

Parent Cessaly Williams came to the door cautiously. At first, she said, she had no problems with the school on Fait Avenue. "The staff is supportive. The staff gets involved," she said. But then as she warmed to the group, she suggested changes. For example: The school should set up a time for teen girls to get together to talk.

Some teachers, she said, aren't committed enough. "Some of the teachers come with an attitude that it is just a paycheck," she said. At times, she said, teachers write off the children because they come from poor homes. "I'm going to get paid whether the students learn or not" is their attitude, Williams said.

The group heard complaints that the school, built during the 1970s era of the "open space" class, has no walls separating classrooms. Some children have trouble concentrating on the teacher. Why not build walls? they asked. The school also doesn't have a nurse or a librarian or enough after-school tutoring, parents said.

Next week, when parents, staff and teachers meet over dinner, they will discuss the school's problems and select a project to improve the school.

"I am hoping to get a better feel for what the community really needs and to raise the staff consciousness. I hope the parents realize how much we really care about their children," Fields said.

Tana Paddock, a community organizer for the South East Community Organization who began working in Southeast last fall, is hoping for more. "It is about getting parents involved and having a say in the kind of school that their children go to every day," Paddock said. "I want strong, effective parent organizations in every school."

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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