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Boosting parent involvement is a major goal for the Tacoma, Wash., public schools. But instead of making assumptions about how to reach families, the district decided to ask them for suggestions.

The Family Involvement Center, now in its third year, is the result of a series of interviews conducted in homes throughout the 31,000-student district. The center, located in a district-owned building on major bus routes near a busy shopping mall, was designed to meet Tacoma residents' needs.

One thing people didn't want, it turned out, was a place that focused only on parents. Instead, the center aims to work with entire families.

And not everyone was comfortable volunteering at a school. Some parents, grandparents, and caregivers wanted a place where they could learn more about how to boost children's academic skills at home, meet other parents, work on computers, and check out educational books and videos.

"The key thing is that we've made the place open and receptive," Bonnie Pinckney, the center supervisor, told a visitor. "If there were only one way to involve parents, I'd be rich."

Ms. Pinckney, who got involved with education 27 years ago as a Head Start parent, said she's relieved to see that family involvement has finally come of age. "It's legitimized, so we can quit that conversation," she said. "We are all in this together, and we're going to work together or die together."

The center, funded by the district and operated by Ms. Pinckney and three family-outreach workers, is open year round. In the fall, the center coordinates the distribution of free back-to-school supplies and clothing for children in need.

It also offers a variety of workshops, including a core "Parenting for Education" seminar created by the U.S. West Education Foundation and underwritten by a local bank.

Other recent classes included "Homework Without Tears," "Resolving Family Conflict," and "Help! I'm the Parent of a Teenager."

While some parents come in on their own, others are sent by social workers or teachers, who refer families using prescription pads provided by the center.

Everyone who participates earns "parent bucks" that can be spent at the parent store for educational games, gifts, books, and toys. More than 2,000 family members already have visited the center this school year.

That's a good start, said Kathy Orlando, an active Tacoma parent. The center's full potential will be realized, she said, when teachers also make extensive use of it.


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