Published Online: March 5, 1997

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The Recipes of Dorothy Rich

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'Maybe because I've been around a little while now, I've learned to appreciate endurance. [Dorothy Rich] has it.'

Michael Casserly
Executive Director,
Council of the Great City Schools

Not everyone, of course, agrees with her. Phillip Harris, the director of professional development and services for the association, Phi Delta Kappan, notes that putting democracy into action by involving parents in decisionmaking can be messy.

"I would describe Dorothy as someone who likes to have things in order," says Harris, a supporter of shared decisionmaking efforts. "Her concern regarding whether parents need to be that involved in running the school is a fairly traditional view."

If Dorothy Rich had her way, every parent in America would understand his or her educational role clearly. If she had her way, towns would become "learning cities," schools would work seamlessly with families and communities, and home-learning recipes would be everywhere. "All of this stuff could just pour out of the gas stations and the grocery stores," she declares.

"I've got all these plans ready to go," Rich says. "I've got another thing in my files--my files are golden if we can only make some of these things happen--a whole public-information campaign for parents on what you can do, like math using the garbage can. I'm not ashamed about talking about what you do with a rug and a chair and a lamp."

Make no mistake, though. Rich is also conversant with more esoteric subjects and has done her share of swimming with the big fish here in Washington. She sat on the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the national tests that are given periodically to gauge students' knowledge. But policy discussions don't touch her heart.

"I've been on some fancy panels," she says. "I always find it interesting what intelligent, energetic, fair-minded people believe is important. It's like, 'Hey, come on guys. Three points on a test is not where it's at.' Where it's at is, we're looking to help to create in this society responsible, motivated people who work hard, who know that they're going to have to keep on learning all their lives."

Rich doesn't mention it, but she also has been instrumental in helping members of Congress to write legislation for the federal Title I program, which provides school districts with extra funds to educate poor children.

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, says Rich is one of only a handful of people who influenced the parent-involvement component of the law. Title I now requires greater involvement of parents and community members through compacts that spell out the shared responsibility for improving achievement. She has worked closely with the Department of Education to write a book on how to form compacts.

Casserly has known Rich for some time. She persuaded him to submit a joint application for funding to Kraft Foods, which is underwriting the MegaSkills training in urban districts. Rich, he says, is "focused like a laser" on parent involvement.

"Maybe because I've been around a little while now, too, I've learned to appreciate endurance," he says. "She has it. Anytime you have a conversation with her, it's like you've known her your entire life. She's very hard to say no to. She's very aggressive without being abrasive."

The MegaSkills programs are now in seven cities, with an additional eight scheduled to start up this year.

The Home and School Institute also works closely with the National Education Association. For many years, Rich had a small office in the NEA's building on 16th Street here and notes proudly that she always paid the rent. But when the teachers' union renovated the building into much grander quarters, she was displaced by the soaring atrium and moved around the corner to modest digs on the ground floor of a Massachusetts Avenue apartment building.

The NEA pays for MegaSkills training for teams of parents, teachers, and community workers in urban districts. The programs are now in seven cities, with an additional eight scheduled to start up this year. A judge in Trenton, N.J., has even mandated that some parents of troubled children get the training.

"MegaSkills works with all people, regardless of their race, religion, or their background," says Warlene Gary, the manager of the NEA's Center for the Revitalization of Urban Education. "Whether they don't read or have no education, they can really get into it. It really is a program that deals with people's value systems and how they were raised and what they are transferring to their kids."

Gary, who calls Rich "a real advocate," notes that people sometimes scoff at MegaSkills because it's so simple. "It's not rocket-science stuff," she acknowledges. "But it's what families need."

The inspiration for the MegaSkills book came from Don Cameron, the executive director of the NEA and a member of the Home and School Institute's board of directors. On a visit to her office, he urged Rich to take the home-learning recipes she'd whipped up in various training programs and put them into a book, suggesting that she could be the "Dr. Spock of education."

First published in 1988, the book crystallized Rich's thinking about what it really takes for kids to make it. Its original title was along the lines of Basic Skills Plus, reflecting the intense interest in fundamental skills at that time. But its author wasn't quite comfortable with the name. "It came to me that I was talking about something I considered more important, and my husband gave me this wonderful phrase: inner engines of learning."

The list of MegaSkills came from school report cards and job-performance evaluations--what Rich calls life's "never-ending report card." They are confidence, motivation, effort, responsibility, initiative, perseverance, caring, teamwork, common sense, and problem solving. For the third edition of the book, she is adding focus because so many children today seem distracted and unable to concentrate.

While some people may think such traits are innate or the result of parenting that can't necessarily be taught, Rich begs to differ. She also insists that the MegaSkills activities are firmly grounded in academics and shun an emphasis on self-esteem and "touchy-feely stuff." The new edition of the book, in fact, will identify the academic objectives for every activity.

"I just want to make sure that people know that, gosh darn it, academics isn't just something that's sitting in a textbook."

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