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The Necessary Partners

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Five months ago, the public schools opened for a new year. Then, as with every school-year opening, there was widespread optimism that this would be a better year than in the past for nearly 43 million children. As the months have passed, the hard realities of life in the 90's have settled in. Optimism has sagged, and in many schools it has been replaced by dissatisfaction with student achievement, concerns with violence, and increasing doubts about the ability of public schools to provide what children need if they are to have a chance to succeed in later life.

There is really no question that running schools and teaching in them is a tough challenge. Society has changed, families have changed, the economy has changed, all in ways that make living more hectic and difficult. The schools are asked to take all of this on and make it all come out right. In light of this, those who run the schools and teach in them should be on the lookout for all the resources, alliances, and partnerships they can bring to bear to help them with their job.

Parents and families are logical allies for school personnel. Of the many things growing children do, they certainly observe and record what goes on around them. They soon know how much or how little their parents and families are valued by school. They soon know how much or how little their families are involved with school. Education is touted as important and worth substantial effort. But actions, not words, are what count.

For more than a year, we searched the country for examples of educators who were undeterred by changes in society and family life, and creative in their efforts to form partnerships with parents and families. We were convinced that some educators in this big country would be influenced by mounting research that says children whose parents were involved in school achieved and succeeded at a higher level. That aside, we felt that even those educators who were not aware of the research evidence would be motivated to find as many helpers and partners as they could identify to do the best job possible. We knew they were out there; we simply had to find them.

Our search resulted in the identification of an initial group of 60 programs that deserved serious investigation. In the end, we selected 34 programs to describe and analyze for publication in a book titled Innovations in Parent and Family Involvement (Eye on Education, Princeton Junction, N.J., 1993). From more than 400 pages in the book we want to distill a small number of conclusions and recommendations we hope will cause many to seriously consider the substantial potential for improving schools and student success that securing new levels of parent and family involvement holds.

  • Creative, productive programs do not always require new or additional money. Our search revealed a list of programs with special, outside funding and others without it. The larger demand is for fresh ideas and approaches.
  • While the greatest gain will be from programs that start when the children are the youngest and that are continuous, the need and the benefit continue across ages and grade levels through to graduation. Better to start a program in middle or senior high school than to assume the opportunity has been missed. There are programs out there to prove it.
  • Don't start by putting the parents in a box. The box is the mindset that the parents/families have things wrong with them that have to be fixed. Start, instead, from the base that the parents and families want the best for their children and that they are motivated to try and have strengths to build on. All of the programs we selected have that philosophy.
  • Take good care of program leadership and train others to take over if necessary. We found that good programs were started by high-energy, talented people. But in too many instances there was an assumption that the person would always be around. In many cases, few provisions were made to develop second-level leadership. When, for a variety of reasons, the charismatic leader is no longer available, there is a serious "vulnerability'' problem that may cause the program to falter or, in the worst-case scenario, to close down. It is a high-loss situation.
  • Creative, productive programs invariably revealed that people and organizations stretched and changed beyond previous experiences. The reaching out to parents has to be far more pronounced than we have seen in the past. We found parent programs and centers in trailer parks and commercial space. We found programs run by community agencies in conjunction with the school. Extensive, repeated home visitations are commonplace in many projects we selected.
  • The parents and families may need as much attention and assistance as the children. If the goal is to have children succeed at higher levels and improvements in parent-family functioning at higher levels is the key to that, do it. Classes to prepare parents to receive a G.E.D. diploma are common in the programs we chose. Well beyond that, we found English instruction for immigrant parents, job-interview training for parents seeking employment, visits to cultural institutions to break out of neighborhood isolation, referrals for legal assistance, and parenting-skills improvement (most often not called that) are a planned part of programs we selected.

Some programs are communitywide, involving resources that are beyond, or in addition to, what the school or school system can muster. In some cases, the school and the parents and families it serves have problems that are so diverse and severe that trying it alone will not work, or not work well. Reaching out to community agencies to form new programs, or to complement existing programs, may be the only feasible way to provide parents and families with what they need to become involved in schools. We found a surprising number of creative, successful programs that take this approach.

Public school personnel are often accused of being tradition bound, unable to break out of comfortable habits and routines. Our search revealed the creative efforts of enthusiastic and highly motivated professionals. Parents and families are an obvious force in the range of programs that should be developed to support children's learning. It can be done, because there is clear evidence that it is being done in various places in the United States. The challenge now is for an ever-growing number of professionals in education to be aware of the successful efforts of others. They can then add their own ideas and convictions to the development of programs that lead to productive, ongoing relationships with parents and families, all directed to greater school success for children.

William Rioux, a consultant, was most recently the executive director and co-founder of the National Committee for Citizens in Education. Nancy Berla has served on the staff of the National Committee for Citizens in Education as the director of the Clearinghouse of Education for Parents.

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