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'Parent Co-oping' as a Tool for Reform

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We are currently in a period of rekindled enthusiasm and escalating rhetoric about the role parents can play in public education. Their involvement was a theme sounded by President Bush and the nation's governors at the education summit. It is also high on the agenda of business leaders and school support groups. Parents are being "trained'' in the workplace and at child-care centers. They are being asked to sign contracts committing them to a share of responsibility for their child's learning. And in some communities they are being given time off by employers to attend school conferences and asked to take part in school governance.

One kind of involvement that has been less widely discussed as a reform model, but that could hold more broad-ranging benefits if widely implemented, is parent co-oping. Already in limited use, parent co-oping requires at least one of a child's parents or guardians to help in the classroom on a regular, rotating basis. Many parents of young children have co-oped in preschool programs and gained new insights into the developmental aspects of child rearing and positive methods of discipline. Others have co-oped in "open'' classrooms or gifted programs and shared their skills with students in such areas as music, art, science, and computer programming.

Co-oping parents typically contribute a morning or afternoon every three or four weeks to the school enterprise. In most such settings, co-oping is a prerequisite to enrollment of the child in the program, so participating parents are motivated by a high level of interest in their child's education. Their lifestyles may also allow them the flexibility to arrange their schedules around their classroom participation.

With the cooperation of the business community, parent co-oping could be expanded far beyond its present use. In fact, it holds more possibility for long-term improvement in the nation's schools than the more typical focus on the role of parents as supporters of learning during nonschool hours. If parental roles during school hours were enlarged, the chances for systemic change could be far greater.

Parent volunteerism is an idea that works. We know from the research literature that children of parents who volunteer in the classroom achieve at higher levels than those whose parents do not. This is true for children of both affluent and low-socioeconomic backgrounds. Yet the current piecemeal and sporadic approach to parents' in-school educational involvement does not provide a basis for continuing family involvement and commitment to the public school systems. Parent co-oping does. If some systematic way were found to provide volunteer programs in every public-school classroom, the extent of student achievement gains might be significantly enhanced.

How could this be done, when most mothers of school-age children, not to mention fathers, work outside the home? To launch a system of extensive co-oping nationwide, four major preconditions must be met: (1) There must be general acceptance of the idea by teachers and educational administrators. (2) There must be general acceptance of the idea by parents. (3) Schools must offer training for both parents and teachers. (4) The cooperation of the business community must be secured so that employees may have time off for school volunteering.

Each of these requirements poses a major but not insurmountable challenge. Basically, what we need is this: a widespread societal expectation that parents belong in the schools, and a presumption that they will be there.

Among the significant potential benefits of parent co-oping are these:

  • Increased parental understanding of the American education system. Parents would have firsthand experience with the strengths and weaknesses of the system and would be more likely to appreciate the contributions of good teachers and to accept some responsibility for the problems. They would have a more informed basis for rewarding sound practices and challenging poor ones. Ultimately, the experience of millions of adult Americans in our schools could generate more support for public education.
  • Increased parental learning and better coordination between home and school. Widespread parental co-oping could create many more opportunities for parents to enhance their own literacy skills and to reduce what for some has been a sense of alienation from schools. In its best form, co-oping could create opportunities for parents to be trained in effective instructional techniques and to learn how to help with homework. For many, it could enhance their disciplinary skills and their sense of belonging in the society.
  • Lower teacher-pupil ratios in classrooms and more adult supervision. Volunteering provides opportunities for more individual attention to students and for more small-group interactions led by adults. The sheer presence of more adults could have the effect of inhibiting some of the discipline problems in our schools and of providing to the many students who do not now have an abundance of role models responsible adult friends other than the teacher.
  • An understanding by children that parents and schools are partners in the education enterprise and share common goals and objectives for children. Elementary-school children of school volunteers often are proud of their parents' involvement and feel enhanced status as a result. The same potential support from students exists at the secondary level, although the nature of parental involvement there could vary. Parents might not, for example, be expected to volunteer in their children's classes, if a concern about adolescents' typical feelings of embarrassment among peers were present.
  • Increased involvement of fathers in schools. If businesses regularly allowed employees to volunteer during work time, far more fathers could contribute their skills. This could have the effect of introducing more male role models to balance the dominance of women role models in the schools. Such adult mentors could play an important role in the lives of children growing up without fathers in their homes.
  • Better payoff for business, which now spends more money educating its workforce than is spent educating schoolchildren. The money invested in co-oping is more likely to produce systemic change than current business donations of computers and other equipment, money for pilot programs, and the placement of relatively small numbers of managerial employees as teacher-volunteers in the schools. By facilitating a parent co-op structure, American business also could help underwrite a commitment to family stability--a commitment badly needed by the society and by business itself.

Such potential gains argue powerfully for more extensive experimentation with the co-oping concept. Organizational models need to be developed to handle the logistical problems. Various options come to mind:

In dual-parent families, one parent might volunteer for a portion of the year, with another parent volunteering for the remainder of the year, or parents might alternate years. Comparably, a parent might volunteer one year in an elementary-school classroom and another year in a secondary-school classroom. Of course, not all families will be able to provide a volunteer because of problems such as illness, language differences, transience, drug addiction, and so forth. Yet a relative might well be able to substitute. In any event, a family might provide only one adult volunteer at a time and for only one of its children's classrooms during any given year.

We know parents would not only need to receive instruction on school standards but to practice performing specific instructional tasks. Therefore, schools should require all volunteers initially to successfully complete a series of training sessions and then to observe in the classroom to which they were assigned. Only then would they begin to interact with students under the teacher's careful eye.

Training must prepare parents to behave as paraprofessionals--to be dependable, to protect the confidentiality of student information, and to work within the community's standards for education and discipline. Improper training that tries merely to motivate but omits practice, evaluation, and follow-through will not prepare either teachers or parents for successful implementation of a volunteer program. Even after training, different skill levels will exist. Some parents might be better at observing or helping with noninstructional duties, for example. But their very presence could be helpful in terms of discipline, adult attention, and offering another set of eyes and ears for the teacher's use.

The design and delivery of such training would take time and skill, and time is an increasingly precious resource in schools. Furthermore, training costs money. But in many regions of the country, effective training models for both teachers and parents are already available. Perhaps business could help underwrite the costs of their dissemination, adaptation, and widespread use. State offices of education should be good sources of information on the variety of training models that have been used successfully in different areas of the country.

A system of parent co-oping of the scale envisioned probably ought to be voluntary on the part of parents, schools, and businesses, rather than the mandatory system now in place in selective school programs. Businesses willing to allow time off for volunteering could make that known to their employees. Those willing and able to take advantage of the offer could so indicate. The businesses would need to decide whether they could absorb the cost as a public-service investment or would need to ask employees to make up the time, or should do both. Small businesses could well have less flexibility than big businesses. If "flex time'' for volunteering results in a better-educated and more stable workforce in the future, however, then the investment would be well worth the costs.

Likewise, schools willing to accept and train volunteers could indicate that willingness. Means of documenting that an employee had worked as a school volunteer during a designated time period could be developed. The phase-in of business-school-parent cooperation where such conditions exist would buy desirable time for various organizational models to be field-tested and evaluated.

The biggest impediment to the introduction of parent co-oping is inertia. Our declining student-achievement scores, the escalating violence in our city schools, and our inability to retain many of our best teachers call for bold leadership to prevent a continuing erosion of public education. Given adequate support from the business community, parent co-oping just might be part of the solution.

Dixie Snow Huefner is assistant professor of special education at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

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