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Beyond Question

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Paterson, N.J.

Andrea Bundick had just turned 16 when she got pregnant. She spent what would have been her junior year at home caring for her baby.

But the next year, she marched back to school, determined to complete two years of coursework in one so she could graduate with her class. Her teachers told her it couldn't be done. And she heard the same discouraging message as she made her way up the chain of school administrators. Eventually, though, they left her to her own devices--without holding out much hope for her success.

Andrea took extra classes, skipped lunch period, and went to summer school that year. And with a little baby-sitting help from her mother, she earned her diploma and proved the powers-that-be wrong.

Andrea's memory of what she had to go through to graduate gives her extra incentive to get involved in her children's schooling. She has two now, a2-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl. The same feistiness and energy that paid off in high school have now earned her a spot as president of the parent organization at her oldest child's school here in Paterson. The girl's father, Wesley Allen, also works to stay involved in school activities. Despite their persistence, though, the couple still has a lot of questions about what they should say and do to become effective advocates for their children.

But thanks to the Right Question, the two have begun to get some answers. Started on a shoestring budget by a small organization in Somerville, Mass., the parent-involvement project takes a different tack than simply trying to entice parents to turn out for bake sales or parent-teacher conferences. It is based on the democratic premise that you can't get what you want unless you know what to ask for.

In that vein, the project offers training sessions to help parents learn how to pose questions to find out whether schools are meeting their children's needs--and what they can do about it if they aren't. But the sessions don't stop with questions. They also groom parents to lead their own workshops for other moms and dads.

In a recent session spanning two and a half days in Paterson, project trainers helped about 20 parents in this primarily low-income minority community come up with questions ranging from who sets school standards to what an A means on a report card. The trainers then put parents through the paces of simulating mock sessions for their peers, who offered feedback and constructive criticism.

"Yesterday, you wouldn't have caught me up here. My hands were cold and clammy--I was so nervous," says Joanne Vaccaro, one of the participants. "But now I think I would be able to do it with a smaller group. I had the encouragement and support of all these people that I can do it."

Inquiring Minds

Community activists working to spur school-community partnerships in Lawrence, Mass., launched the Right Question project five years ago. Their outreach efforts shed light on the obstacles that keep many parents at arm's length from the people anddecisions that affect them and their children.

"We learned from parents that they weren't participating because they didn't know what to ask," says Dan Rothstein, the executive director of the Right Question project.

The project is not limited to school issues. Its skeleton staff of five--which works out of a basement office in an old public school--has traveled from Boston to Hawaii helping parents devise strategies on everything from getting better child care to coping with the shutdown of a sugar-cane plantation. Topics for next year include campaign-finance reform and immigration.

But the project's meat and potatoes has been helping parents support, monitor, and advocate for their children in school. The education component is built around workshops touching on four sets of questions:

  • What is my child learning?
  • What does my child need to learn?
  • Is the teacher teaching what my child needs to learn? Is my child learning what he or she needs to learn?
  • If not, what can I do? If so, what else can I do?

The project's initial work--paid for through contracts and support from such groups as the Boston Foundation--took place mostly in Massachusetts. The Cambridge public schools, for example, have linked up with the project to train 53 people--including 23 "parent liaisons" based in schools--to practice the Right Question principles and carry them to others.

Through a contract with Boston's Suffolk University, the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund in 1993 awarded the project a three-year $650,000 grant that has helped spread its education message to groups from Providence, R.I., to Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes, one of the nation's largest and poorest housing projects. Next year's plans include sessions centered on middle school reform in Kentucky.

The Right Question also recently won a federal grant to help project organizers expand their staff and work with the Cambridge schools and other area agencies to set up a training center.

Boosting Confidence

The Right Question hooks up with parents through a wide range of organizations. The Paterson Education Fund--a local group that supports grass-roots school reform--organized the training here, with funding from a local utility company. Group organizers recruited about half of the participants from a pool of parents with whom they were already working; brochures and word-of-mouth brought the rest.

Ana Rodriguez and Luz Santana, the project trainers running the Paterson session, shuffle their charges through brainstorming and role-playing exercises that spark camaraderie and creativity. The parents work their way up from simple questions about how they can find out more about their children's curricula to more complex queries about what standardized tests measure, how their schools stack up against state and national norms, and what kinds of job options their children will have when they graduate.

The sessions also prompt discussion about inequities between schools in Paterson and wealthier New Jersey communities and about how parents can bolster their influence when the state--which took over control of the Paterson schools in 1991--returns the district to local control.

In one exercise, a cluster of parents stages a confrontation between parents and administrators to raise questions Joanne Vaccaro wants answered about why her child is bused to a school 10 miles outside the district.

Confidence blossoms as the parents begin to see that they have the right tools to approach teachers and principals. "I've been wanting to do this for years," says Julia Bryant, a mother of a 15-year-old girl.

The session is also peppered with tips for presenting workshops, like how to keep meetings on track, how to tactfully admonish parents who monopolize discussion, and how to tailor materials for illiterate parents or those whose first language is not English.

Making Headway

Donna Muncey, an anthropologist and consultant, is observing the Paterson session for an evaluation she's doing for DeWitt-Wallace. She is struck by the group's astuteness during an exercise in which parents get slips of paper representing either 50-page or 100-page curricula for their children.

Parents raise the usual concerns about whether some children are getting short shrift and how they can intervene. But they also probe deeper. "We should judge by the content, not by the number of pages," pipes up Maria Parham.

Another exercise reveals that none of the parents seems familiar with the term "tracking," or the grouping of students by ability, an observation that Muncey says is not unusual.

In a preliminary evaluation of the project, Muncey concludes that the Right Question's approach is sound, works well with disparate groups, and properly keeps the focus of the discussion on guiding parents to their own solutions. But she raises concern that some parents get "pumped up" to organize workshops and then can't get many people to come.

"We have had many successes, and we've also had workshops planned and nobody has shown up," notes Margaret Gallagher, the citywide parent coordinator for the Cambridge schools. Still, Gallagher estimates the Cambridge trainers have reached at least 100 parents.

Right Question Project staffers can't be sure how many of the parents they've trained have carried on the word. But one study in rural Massachusetts found that 13 parents had held workshops for 266 parents within eight months of being trained.

Some parents and organizations are better at following through than others, Rothstein concedes. So project leaders are trying to be more savvy in their choice of partners. "We are getting much more clear with organizations about what we expect," he says.

The Paterson Education Fund told participants up front that they would be required to lead eight workshops each. The group also sweetened the pot by offering those who completed the program free computers and training to use them. A pre-training retreat helped break the ice for parents, principals, and Right Question staff members, and a post-training meeting encouraged the necessary follow-through.

"The camaraderie and excitement were still there," says Rosie Grant, the fund's program director. What's more, many parents had already begun scheduling workshops.

Many educators have welcomed the chance to work with more informed parents. And Rothstein reports that parents do talk in positive terms about how their children have benefited from the lessons they have learned. But, he adds, some parents still find teachers who send the message that "if there's not a problem and I don't call you, I don't want to see you here."

Susan Cruz of Paterson, a mother of two, says some teachers were taken aback when she asked to see their curricula. But they were generally supportive. Some even expressed interest in attending one of her workshops.

When Gallagher held workshops in Cambridge to familiarize teachers with the Right Question, many of them strongly backed the project but also raised concerns about how they would find time for more parent-teacher conferences. In response, Gallagher and others argue that schools must explore a wide range of forums to nurture school-parent bonds.

Benjamin Williams, the state district assistant superintendent of the Paterson schools, says he expects the project to give rise to some tensions at first. But the idea, he says, is to "let the parents know the whole approach is one where it's a team."

"Parents have some resources, and the school has resources," Williams adds. "And if both entities keep focused on the child, it works out."

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