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In Rural Va., Teachers Travel Back Roads 'To Build Bridges'

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EMPORIA, VA.--Several days a week, Shirley Jones and Betty Sabo comb the neighborhoods of this small, rural community.

They look for bicycles propped against the side of a house, children's garments hanging from a clothesline, or toys strewn about a yard.

They ring bells or knock on doors, inviting parents and children outside.

Then the women climb back into their 36-foot customized recreational vehicle, parked at the center of the neighborhood, to wait for the parents and toddlers to congregate on the street.

Ms. Sabo, a resource specialist, and Ms. Jones, an instructional aide, are employed by the Greensville County Public Schools to travel the main streets and back roads of southeastern Virginia as part of a three-year-old effort to turn the traditional relationship between schools and parents on its head.

Using the district's mobile Parent Resource Center, the school system is reaching out "to build bridges between schools and the parents of at-risk kids,'' according to Margaret Lee, the district's Chapter 1 coordinator and the project's creator.

Not long ago, it was difficult to get some parents in the area involved in their children's education, she says.

"Parents might not know the right questions to ask,'' explains Ms. Lee. Or they might be wary of coming in to a "negative atmosphere'' at the school if their child has been singled out for bad behavior or poor academic performance.

"So I thought,'' she says, "if parents aren't coming to us, why not go out to them?''

Family-School Grant

In 1990, the former teacher pitched a proposal for a mobile outreach program to the Family/School Partnership, a subsidiary of the U.S. Education Department's Fund for the Improvement and Reform of Schools and Teaching.

Out of a pool of 436 candidates, the Greensville-Emporia schools were one of 31 applicants awarded a grant.

With the $97,000 from FIRST, Ms. Lee set out to transform a mobile unit into a travelling library, classroom, and meeting place for local parents.

"I had read about mobile classrooms in West Virginia,'' she explains, "and we already knew about the concept of a bookmobile.''

"I just took the idea of moving and extended it a little further,'' she adds.

The goal was to create a positive atmosphere for parents and teachers to work together to improve the learning environment at home by arming parents with tutoring skills.

Using the van as a neutral "link'' between school and home accomplishes that, she says.

"We're on [parents'] turf, so it's non-threatening,'' she points out. "And we try to make the dialogue open'' between the mobile unit's staff and parents coming to the center.

The district posts the mobile unit's schedule in the local newspaper, and two part-time parent-assistants make advance calls to let parents know the resource center will be making a visit to their neighborhood.

While children are attending classes at Greensville's six schools, Ms. Jones and Ms. Sabo traverse the district, stopping at trailer courts, grocery stores, housing developments, and local businesses in search of parents.

'Quality Time'

At the back of the resource center, there is a flurry of activity.

Two toddlers are perched on the floor with toys. Several others, standing at a low counter, are building towers with colorful blocks.

Ms. Jones hovers above them, reassuring the youngsters and offering to read them a story.

A few appear interested but quickly return to the boxes of plastic toys.

"Kids at first are overwhelmed by the toys,'' observes Ms. Jones. "Many of them don't have these things at home, so they've never seen them before.''

The children seem to enjoy coming to "the school bus'' with their parents.

Ms. Lee points out that the activities the toddlers participate in "show them that school is a place where things happen. They get an early feeling that they like school.''

Inside one of the center's cabinets, stacks of books, games, pamphlets, instructional videos, and binders on developing reading and vocabulary skills cover the shelves.

Signs with motivational messages about spending "quality time'' at home with children are posted throughout the center.

A roster on the wall lists all of the parents who have made contact with the resource team. Markers next to the names indicate the number of visits each parent has made.

Ms. Lee estimates that the center has hosted about 400 adults, or 60 percent of the parents of Greensville's 2,800 students.

Teaching Improvisation

At the front of the mobile unit, four visitors are chatting with Ms. Sabo about the progress their children are making in school.

Three women sit at a table clipping newspapers. One parent reveals a pile of words she chose from headlines, articles, and advertisements.

"This is for my 7-year-old daughter, so she can group them into words she knows and words she doesn't know,'' says Willie Mae Tillar. "She can use them for school.''

The center's team emphasizes the use of practical, no-cost items as learning tools. Throughout the day, they show parents how to use household items to sharpen children's reading skills and encourage creative play.

The center also offers a host of materials for parents to check out for a few days at a time.

Ms. Lee says many parents are surprised that the center offers free services and encourages improvisation.

"I like to remind the parents that all we ask for is their time,'' she says with a nod.

Henrietta Edwards has three children in the Greensville schools. She says she finds the center has not only taught her to tutor her children at home, but also enabled her to share ideas with other parents.

The center "really helps, because it actually gets the neighborhood together,'' she remarks. "Even though Emporia is a small area, I wish there was more than one of these.''

The community's interest in the center has been so overwhelming that Ms. Lee developed a walk-in center with a second government grant near one of the district's elementary schools.

There, two parent-assistants, Agnes Seaborne and Beverly Rogers, will help parents construct "make and take'' learning devices to use at home.

Teachers from the district will come to the walk-in center to lead workshops and hold parent-teacher conferences. And parents who have found effective ways to tutor their children will share their ideas with other parents.

The district plans to open the "Parents Helping Parents'' center at the end of the month.

Ms. Lee thinks the program has been successful because her team "relies very heavily on what research says about parent involvement in education.''

"We try to show parents that you have to take an active role,'' Ms. Lee says. "You can't totally relinquish your responsibility to the school.''

Outside Response

According to Ms. Lee, many of the district's parents work odd shifts at area plants like Perdue or Georgia-Pacific and at a nearby corrections facility.

Others are unemployed or single parents struggling to raise several children.

And, as one parent points out, the mobile unit provides a quick, easy, and inexpensive way to get involved.

The center makes on-site visits at six area businesses so parents can stop in before or after work, or during short breaks.

According to Ms. Lee, several employers may even allow the center's team to use conference rooms to work with parents or may agree to some "work-release time'' for those who want to visit the mobile unit.

Dorothea Shannon, the superintendent of the Greensville-Emporia schools, says the mobile unit's success has reached beyond the community's borders.

"We've gotten a tremendous response from outside,'' she remarks. "There are school divisions that are modeling programs after ours.''

Ms. Lee has received inquiries from places as far afield as Canada and California. And, close to home, several districts in the Tidewater area of Virginia are planning, or are already operating, parent resource centers.

Ms. Shannon grins when she remembers a recent phone call she received about the program. 7

"We had [a parent] outside of the county call and ask if she could come into our center,'' she says.

"This is truly a success, because people just keep coming back.''

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