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Parental Participation Said Crucial to School Success

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Washington--The changing characteristics of the American population require education officials to devise new and innovative means of maintaining a link between home and school, speakers said here this month at a meeting on parental involvement.

And though participants differed on strategies for doing so, they concurred that without the participation of parents in their children's educational progress, schools alone cannot raise achievement levels.

The conference, attended by child-care, school, and government representatives, was sponsored by the Home and School Institute and the George Washington University.

Urie Bronfenbrenner, Jacob Gould Schurman professor of human development and family studies at Cornell University, described three "profound" social changes that he said should influence policymak-ing for schools. These "new demographics," Mr. Bronfenbrenner said, include the rapid growth in the number of working mothers, increasing numbers of single-parent families, and a widening gap between the affluent and the poor.

"The changes now taking place in this country are a social time bomb, and our children are the casualties of the fallout," he added.

Citing similar social trends, Edward Zigler, director of Yale University's Bush Center for Early Childhood Development, called for a new model of "the community school."

Such a school, he said, would operate as a center for information and child care from children's earliest years. It would provide not only schooling, but before- and after-school services for the children of working parents, and it would offer services to parents on child-development. He called the lack of safe, affordable child care "the number one problem of the American family."

"Day care for school-aged children has been ignored by the school systems," he contended.

The community schools would develop "partnerships" with parents, he said, so that "by the time the child is in first grade the schools are familiar territory for the parents and the children."

But Mr. Zigler, a former head of the office of child development in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, acknowledged that it will not be easy to convince state and federal policymakers that providing high-quality child-care programs is a public responsibility.

Systems of Choice

Other forum participants debated the degree to which policy changes would foster stronger home-school relationships.

William Kristol, special assistant to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, argued that allowing parents to choose their child's schoolel14lwould be a significant spur to increased family participation. He said it was "common sensical" that if parents must learn about schools to decide where to send their children, they will become more involved. But he added that parental choice would not be a panacea for the problem of parental involvement.

Robert Witherspoon, director of the National Parent Center, countered, however, that Mr. Kristol was "equating choice with involvement." He said a system of choice would do nothing to encourage minority and low-income parents to become more involved with schools.

Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, pointed to the obstacles that prevent working parents and minority parents from increased participation in schools.

She suggested that schools schedule meetings before and after work so working parents can attend. She said employers should be encouraged to allow flexible work schedules so that parents could visit schools.

Ms. Futrell and other speakers at the conference argued that teachers need to learn to work with parents, especially those who are intimidated by schools.

"Parents may be distrustful of schools," Ms. Futrell noted. "Perhaps they had a bad experience with school, or maybe they don't speak English as a first language."

Urging conference participants to develop more avenues of communication between schools and parents, Ms. Futrell said, "Committees are in4place for parent involvement--textbook committees and others--but parents aren't aware of them."

Moreover, she and other speakers said, parents are not called "when the news is positive" but only when there are disciplinary or academic problems.

Participants did not agree on how far government should go in setting parent-involvement policies.

Mr. Kristol said policymakers cannot and should not legislate parental involvement, but Mr. Witherspoon argued that a requirement for such involvement should be written into every education policy.

Nancy L. Harris, director of intergovernmental affairs for the U.S. Education Department, said the Reagan Administration supports parental involvement but is leaving policy decisions up to state and local leaders.

Forum participants, however, challenged that position. Anne Henderson, a senior associate with the National Committee for Citizens in Education, said parental involvement is most likely to occur when federal policies, along with state and local policies, require it. She argued that rules requiring parental involvement in the Education for All Handicapped Children's Act, P.L. 94-142, had produced a marked increase in parent participation in special-education programs.

On the other hand, Ms. Henderson said, eased requirements in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 programs have resulted in a decline in family involvement. Chapter 1 requires only that parents be consulted when programs are implemented. Under the predecessor Title I program, school districts were required to set up parent advisory councils.

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