Commentary

Schools Must Care About Families

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As dawn breaks each morning across this nation, working parents wake up hoping that their children will be well enough to go to school, their babysitters will show up, and, above all, the school will be open.

In winter, this is an especially precarious arrangement, since many schools are known for closing at the sign of a snowflake.

On a recent wintry day, the following headline appeared in The Washington Post: "Snow Holiday Takes Parents by Surprise." The accompanying story began, "Parents around the Washington area woke up yesterday to between two and five inches of snow and the news of no school. In desperation, they improvised, tracking down babysitters, juggling schedules, and calling in to ask for the day off."

Snow days and the disruptions they bring for families and businesses are a perfect illustration of what happens when schools proceed as if all mothers spent their days at home. Just as businesses today face a strikingly different workforce, schools deal with a strikingly different "parent force." The majority of schoolchildren have working mothers--most of whom work full time. And their concerns affect both the work place and the school.

Employers in general have not yet acknowledged their appropriate interest in their employees' family lives--and how the quality of family life enhances or detracts from worker productivity. But schools have a clear, basic interest in a child's family because there is no doubt that what happens in the family affects the child and the child's performance in school. In study after study, the home has been identified as a vital influence on student achievement. Thus, in order to reach and teach the student, schools have to care about the family.

This involvement need not mean opening a Pandora's box of parental demands that are unrelated to the work of the school. Nor need this caring by schools raise parental expectations that schools will take over all parents' child-rearing responsibilities.

Concern for today's family can be expressed relatively simply yet very effectively, as in the snow-day lesson that Baltimore school superintendent Alice Pinderhughes taught in an "open letter" to parents that appeared in the Baltimore Sun:

"Educators have a responsibility to conduct learning activities each and every scheduled school day [regardless of the weather]. As educators, we serve as role models who influence the development of life patterns and behavior for students. Our behavior conveys a message to students as strongly as our words."

"Maybe it's time," added a spokesman for the Baltimore schools in the same article, "that people got the message that schools shouldn't automatically close because of snow. We live in a climate where cold weather is anticipated in the winter months. Other businesses and organizations stay open."

There's no denying that it is easier to teach a lesson in urban Baltimore about the importance of school on a snowy day than it is in suburbs and rural areas that depend on school buses. But while nothing can be done to change the weather, there are steps that administrators can take even now to stand up to winter and begin meeting the needs of working parents and their children.

There will probably always be parents who wish the school would do it all, operating 24 hours a day. But the wish list of many parents I have met through Home and School Institute conferences includes these realistic expectations for school leaders:

  • Increase schools' awareness of the constraints of working and single parents. They are more apt, for example, to be able to attend meetings and conferences scheduled for the evening.
  • Help teachers develop more positive attitudes about families undergoing separation, divorce, and remarriage. Teachers, for example, should deliberately avoid the term "broken family."
  • Establish peer-support groups for single and working parents. Encourage groups such as "Parents without Partners" to organize through the schools.
  • Increase and improve communication between home and school. Try such easy-to-implement ideas as "glad notes" and "60-second phone calls" that inform parents of their children's accomplishments. Use home-learning activities for parent and child (not homework) to augment class work.
  • Provide after-school care, which could be subcontracted, to keep children in the school building after the school day ends but before parents are home from work.
  • To the meeting agendas of P.T.A. and parents' groups, add discussion groups for working and single parents who are juggling the demands of home and work.
  • Institute open-enrollment policies whereby children are permitted to attend schools near their parents' workplaces.
  • Keeping the schools' doors open is a start in the right direction. For example, on a snow day when most schools may have to close, I would like to see at least one school in every region of a city or district remain open. Arrangements for this, of course, would have to be made in advance, along with a decision on the numbers of students to be accommodated. Teachers would have to be selected and trained in working with groups of children of all ages, and educational activities would have to be scheduled. There would be safety and insurance problems, but even these could surely be worked out--if this school opening were seen as an important community service.

    For parents of latchkey children who are unsupervised after school, schools could use their computers to match families with community caregivers, especially retired senior citizens.

    It does not take a crystal ball to predict that the numbers of working parents will increase and that the "typical" American family may all but disappear. By 1990, it is estimated in the 1984 Family Resource Coalition Report, almost half of the total workforce will be female and half of these women will become pregnant during their working years. It is also predicted that a growing number of fathers will be sharing more family responsibilities, including making those daily child-care arrangements and worrying about snow.

    Schools can begin to position themselves right now to be, not a supplier of all services, but a focus and facilitator for the community. Carefully articulated, this involvement need not extend the work of the schools. What it does extend is the impact of the school as an even more important place for old and young, before and after school hours, in summer and in winter.

    Vol. 04, Issue 24, Page 31

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