Working to get parents involved in local schools

June 25, 1999|By Amy Bernstein

THIS past legislative session, the Maryland House of Delegates swiftly killed a bill that would have required parents to get more involved in their children's academic progress.

Under the measure, parents and their children enrolled in public schools would have been required to write an "action plan," outlining academic goals.

"If parents ignored the school, didn't show up for PTA, didn't take an interest in their child's academic performance, then the superintendent should be able to hold them in contempt of court," said the bill's sponsor, State Del. Joanne Benson of Prince George's County, a former school teacher and principal.

Of course, there were some key problems with Ms. Benson's bill, including the fact that the courts wouldn't go along with such a coercive measure.

But the doomed bill shows how many school officials are frustrated by many parents' failure to get involved in schools. These days, with so many households where both parents work, little time is left for volunteering. The proliferation of one-parent households compounds the problem.

But it's a mistake to assume that the majority of parents are indifferent to their children's schools. In fact, many parents are active participants. National and local parent-teacher group membership has risen in recent years. A national survey of 800 public school parents showed that 91 percent agreed that it is "extremely important" for parents to be involved in their children's school.

Welcoming parents

The problem is, many schools don't make it easy for parents to become involved. Communications between school and home is an often-cited barrier to such involvement, along with lack of child care and transportation.

Also, fund raising consumes many volunteer hours. For example, at Western High School in Baltimore, over the past two years, parents had to raise $1,000 to purchase frogs and other lab supplies for biology classes. The result: parent volunteers in cash-strapped schools often spend so much time on fund raisers that there's little time left for other types of involvement.

Moreover, in too many schools, parental input is restricted, even trivialized. The federal National Center for Education Statistics reports that more than two-thirds of parents have no involvement in the hiring of teachers; and more than one-third have no say in how their local schools spend money.

Most troubling of all is that, in multiple surveys, parents say they feel unwelcome at their children's school. Wicomico High School Principal Tom Field acknowledges that for years, parents were viewed as adversaries: "I can remember how parent [committee] members would inhibit [school improvement] team discussions. . . . What issues would it be `safe' to discuss with parents present? Trust came slowly."

Ties that bind

Clearly, ties between home and school must be strengthened and reinvigorated. And we must find new ways to involve working parents in school activities.

In light of concerns about parental involvement in schools, a number of efforts locally and nationally are planned, including: Congress is reviewing changes to the Title I program, which provides extra money for schools with large enrollments of low-income pupils, and may add funding for parent groups.

Johns Hopkins University researchers -- through its Center for the Social Organization of Schools -- work with some 1,000 schools nationwide, including more than 160 in Baltimore, to get parents to work with schools to improve attendance, test scores and other areas.

In May, the state held its second annual Family Involvement Conference, bringing hundreds of parents and educators together to share ideas on how to recruit and retain more school volunteers.

This fall, in Baltimore County, a school bus, dubbed the "parent mobile," which has been turned into a sort of counselor's office on wheels, will travel to parents who have difficulty getting to parent-teacher meetings and other school events. Such parents will be offered help in assisting their children with homework and other matters.

By fall, city schools chief Robert Booker is expected to appoint the first director of parent involvement, who is to unite disparate parent-outreach efforts around the city under one office.

These initiatives and others may help to bring more parents into the schools as valued and empowered partners. But we must never forget that this is a two-way street. School officials and teachers must stop viewing parents as adversaries. And parents owe it to their children to make school volunteering a top priority.

Amy L. Bernstein is a free-lance writer and the incoming president of Mount Washington Elementary School's Parent-Teacher Organization in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 6/25/99

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