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National Commitment to Parent Role in Schools Sought

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RACINE, WIS.--Improving the magnitude and quality of parental and family involvement in public schools must become a national priority, leaders of major national education associations said at a "Parental Involvement Summit'' convened here last week by the National PTA.

Representatives of 23 such groups adopted a mission statement calling parental involvement "essential for the positive emotional and social development, cultural growth, and academic achievement of every child.''

"As the nation focuses on educational excellence,'' the statement continues, "parent/family involvement must be aggressively pursued and supported by homes, schools, communities, businesses, organizations, and government entities by working together in a mutually collaborative effort.''

The summit participants also established five joint goals for future action, pledging to:

  • Continue collaboration on parent- and family-involvement issues among themselves and with other "key groups'';
  • Obtain or renew a commitment to parent and family involvement within the goals, policies, and programs of their individual organizations;
  • Improve public awareness of the importance of family involvement in education;
  • Strengthen efforts to address the needs of families from diverse backgrounds;
  • Seek the passage of legislation and policies that further parent involvement in education.

Among others attending the meeting at the Johnson Foundation's Wingspread conference center were the presidents or directors of the Coalition of Title I/Chapter 1 Parents, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Association of State Boards of Education, the National School Boards Association, and the National PTA.

'Historic' Role Cited

William Rioux, the executive director of the National Committee for Citizens in Education, called the meeting a "historic'' occasion.

"For me, when 23 organizations will fully and openly acknowledge the role of parents in the academic success of their children and in the success of schools over all, that's a benchmark,'' he said.

While in recent years much rhetoric has been devoted to family involvement in education, said Don Davies, the president of the Institute for Responsive Education, "it remains very much on the sidelines in the reality of American public schools.''

In conjunction with the summit, the PTA conducted a survey of 4,800 local chapter presidents. Although 84 percent of respondents said that administrators in their schools support parental and family involvement, 56 percent did not know whether their school district had a specific parent-involvement policy. Of the 40 percent who did know, half said their school has a policy and half said it does not.

Among the survey's other findings:

  • Only 30 percent of the respondents said that their school provides training for the faculty on parental involvement. Of the remaining group, 37 percent were not aware if such training was available, and 31 percent said the schools did not provide training.
  • Nearly 90 percent of the respondents cited a lack of time as a major barrier to parental involvement in schools.
  • Between 25 percent and 32 percent of respondents identified the following as other barriers for parents: a feeling of being "inferior'' or "intimidated,'' a lack of understanding about how the educational system works and how to get involved, and the lack of child care at school functions.

National Goals Criticized

Summit participants discussed at length the definition of the term "parental involvement.'' Among the major roles they saw family members playing were as children's "first and ongoing teachers,'' as advocates for children and schools, as partners in school decisionmaking, and as information resources for schools.

"We at the PTA have known for years that the difference between a good education and a mediocre one depends to a large extent on parents and family,'' said the organization's president, Pat Henry.

Ms. Henry criticized the national education goals adopted by the President and the nation's governors for the "critical omission'' of parental and family involvement, which she views as a crucial component in improving American schools.

Mr. Davies of the Institute for Responsive Education said parental involvement in education is "not high on the national political agenda.'' He said that "there has been more talk of middle-class tax cuts in the Presidential campaign'' than of education.

"America is a non-family-friendly society,'' agreed David Williams, the vice president of Resources for School Improvement at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin, Tex.

Schools of education have also "failed to prepare teachers and administrators to deal with changed ways of thinking, and to deal with changing families,'' Mr. Davies asserted. Parental involvement, he said, should be a vital component of both teachers' college training as well as their in-service training through their schools' staff-development programs.

Need for Outreach Stressed

Among the primary components of successful parental-involvement programs, Mr. Davies and Mr. Williams said, are committed principals and written policies. Other factors Mr. Williams cited were utilizing a "partnership approach'' that involves joint decisionmaking, developing strong "two-way communication'' between home and school, networking with other schools' parent-involvement programs, and evaluating progress at regular intervals.

Mr. Rioux of the N.C.C.E. said it is also important for teachers and administrators to reach out more to include parents who traditionally have not been involved in school activities.

"It's an attitude we have to develop,'' he said. "You can't just stay in the building; you have to go out and meet [parents] in the places they feel comfortable.''

And parents themselves must also take the initiative, others said. "The time is gone,'' the National PTA's Ms. Henry said, "where parents can just send their child to school when the bell rings in kindergarten and expect to get the child back in 12th grade fully educated.''

Follow-up Planned

Within the next month, Scholastic Inc., a primary funder of the conference, will publish a report summarizing the meeting's conclusions, Ms. Henry said. The National PTA plans to distribute at least 75,000 copies of that report to its affiliates, the participating organizations, and other education-related groups.

Summit participants said they will report back to the PTA within six months on what they have accomplished within their own organizations, and that they hope to reconvene as a group within a year.

Catherine A. Belter, the chairman of the PTA's education commission and one of the conference organizers, said she hopes that similar summits will be hosted on the state and local levels, either by PTA chapters or by organizations attending this first summit.

The presence of so many top organization officers at this meeting made it particularly effective, said Connie Hubbell, the president-elect of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

"When you send your top official, it shows a real commitment,'' she said. However, she added, "We at the national level can provide the leadership, but where it's going to make a real difference is at the local level.''

Among the other organizations represented at the summit were three corporations--the International Business Machines Corporation, the Macmillan/McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, and Scholastic Inc.--as well as the American Federation of Teachers, the National Black Child Development Institute, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Council of LaRaza, the National Education Association, and the U.S. Education Department.

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