Commentary

Family-Support Programs and the Schools

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Under the auspices of the St. Louis school district, trained parent educators make monthly visits to the families of young children to provide information on child development and demonstrate age-appropriate activities for children.

In Minneapolis schools, parents of toddlers meet weekly to discuss challenges associated with new parenting. While they confer with a parent educator, their children play together in an adjacent room with an early-childhood teacher.

In Davis County, Utah, parents borrow books, toys, and pamphlets on education and child development from an extensive library; they can also participate in discussion groups and classes.

These public-school programs and hundreds of others like them currently taking root throughout the nation share a commitment to supporting families as they nurture young children. Indeed, "family support" programs represent an exciting new step in the evolution of parent-school relationships. Beyond transforming the nature of these interactions, such programs are altering conventional visions of the role of schools in society, thereby creating new opportunities for schools to address pressing social challenges.

The role of schools in our society has been debated since the inception of public education in America, with some educators suggesting that schools should be instruments of social reform and others arguing that they should act as guardians of the status quo. In no area of schooling has this debate figured more prominently than the relationship between schools and families.

The evolution of that relationship reflects this tension. In the Colonial period, their respective missions were seen as quite distinct: Schools taught basic academic skills, while family and church guided character development. But by the time of Horace Mann in the early 19th century, educators and parents were distressed by the alienation of homes and schools.

By the late 19th century, organizational responses emerged; numerous parent groups, usually dominated by women, worked to foster positive home-school relations. Acting as municipal reformers, women activists agitated for pure food, clean streets, and educational improvements that would benefit urban schoolchildren in particular. And at the turn of the century, inspired by visions of a better America, schools expanded their mandate to address rising social issues: feeding the poor, acculturating immigrants to American values.

Later, recognizing the possibilities education afforded, middle-class families pressed for school reforms for their own children; they succeeded in introducing or improving instruction in music, art, and manual skills, as well as in establishing school gardens and playgrounds.

Expanding the vision of schools as agents of social reform, the community-school movement--which gained prominence in the 1950's--formally embraced a service commitment to the entire community, not just school-age children. And the press for local control and the citizen-participation movement of the 60's added another dimension to the evolving relationship between parents and schools.

But the road has not always been easy. Numerous tensions have accompanied the growth of cooperation in family-school relations. Resenting schools' involvement in their private domain, many parents sought to distance themselves from schools. Likewise, as professionalism grew, school personnel questioned the "intrusion" of parents into their world. And with their overloaded agendas and underfinanced budgets, schools often lacked strong commitments to families or to broader notions of schooling.

But over the past 30 years, several forces have converged to increase schools' responsiveness to parents and community. First, the force of mandate--for example, such legislation as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (pl 94-142), key Supreme Court decisions, and the creation of programs like Head Start--has legitimized the rights of children and parents. Through such policies, parents have become increasingly involved in schools--whether serving on policy committees, gaining due process for their youngsters, or signing off on budgets.

But the ritualistic barriers of professionalism remained deeply rooted until a second force--a change in ethos toward a holistic, ecological perspective on schooling--took hold among educators. No longer seen solely from a cognitive perspective, children's learning is now viewed by many as the synthesis of social, emotional, health, and cognitive factors. According to this new understanding, children influence--and are influenced by--a social network including family, school, and community; consequently, parents have a valuable role to play in their children's education.

A third force accelerating positive parent-school relations was a shift in emphasis from treatment to prevention in dealing with social problems. Society looked to the schools to help institutionalize this concept, requiring educators to work closely with young children and their families. The push for prevention tipped the scales so that schooling could not remain separate from the problems of community and society: Schools became legitimate, accepted instruments of social reform--an important legacy of 20th-century education.

Finally, changes in family life constitute a fourth force. As more and more families face increased pressures in coping with daily life, they turn to schools--and many have responded.

What are the consequences of these changes for schools as they seek to render support to families? How will the schools respond? First, given the diverse nature of American schooling, there will be no single response, no single program: States, municipalities, and even individual schools will contour their responses to meet local needs and perceptions. Second, whatever form family-school interaction takes, it will build upon what has gone before.

While the lexicon that describes past practice varies with the chronicler, the level of participation often characterized as "parent involvement" may be regarded as the most benign form of interaction. Parents offer services that usually benefit the school in fairly traditional, noncontroversial ways: fundraising, volunteering in classrooms, assisting on field trips.

The "parent participation" of the 1960's added more "proactive" involvement, including a voice for parents in decisionmaking regarding their children, the curriculum, and, in limited cases, staffing and budgeting. According respect for parents' input on substantive issues, this level of interaction typically requires more time, knowledge, and experience than simple "involvement."

"Parenting education," a third approach, seeks to impart knowledge to parents. Varying from district to district, the process and content of such programs might include workshops, home visits, or courses on such topics as child development, financial management, nutrition and health, community resources, and literacy.

While incorporating some features of these approaches, particularly parenting education, "family support" programs differ in important ways. They begin with the premise that all families have strengths and that all families benefit from support. As partners in the effort, parents are respected for their contributions.

Parents and program staff learn from one another in multidirectional, often nonhierarchical relationships. Less didactic and more flexible than earlier approaches, family-support programs often tailor their offerings to parents' needs and interests. Indeed, both the structure--peer-support groups, home visits, parent education, informal networking--and the substance of these programs are adapted for and by the parents.

Though this approach is hardly restricted to schools, it creates special opportunities for them. Because it focuses on strengthening the family and on parents' taking responsibility for their own lives and those of their children, it appeals to policymakers and to the public. The very existence of such programs suggests that schools are committed to families and community--that they are innovative and responsive. Schools with family-support programs report not only greater parental involvement but also greater trust and support for education generally.

Strong anecdotal evidence reported by researchers indicates that effective programs can also reinforce parents' commitment to and knowledge of the learning process. And as welcome al4ternatives to a deficit orientation,family-support programs allow schools to realign their attitudes toward parents--to embrace new ways of helping children and families.

As harbingers of innovation, these programs also pose unusual challenges for schools. The flexibility required to manage them may fly in the face of rigid bureaucratic practices. In some cases, the empowerment of parents will necessitate schools' reevaluating their planning and decisionmaking procedures.

Further, because the programs use personnel in new ways, staff responsibilities may not perfectly mesh with current job descriptions: New staff roles may need to be created, and new training launched.

Though comparatively modest in their financial demands, such efforts require ongoing funding. Their place on the priority list for resources and their structural home--early-childhood education, community education, or adult/continuing education--may vary from year to year. On the one hand, such flexibility increases options for implementation. But on the other hand, like all programs, these efforts need stable commitments in order to thrive.

Today, armed with a cogent rationale for strong parent-school relationships, educators must focus not on the "if" but on the "how."

Combining current theoretical commitments to the ecology of human development and to the benefits of preventive intervention with practical experience in forging effective relationships with parents, family-support programs represent a potent new opportunity for American schools and families.

Vol. 8, Issue 17, Page 40

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