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School Hot Line Found To Boost Parent Involvement

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At Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, Va., students can't get away with telling their parents they don't have any homework. Mom or Dad can simply call the school's voice mail to find out if they are telling the truth.

Stonewall Jackson is one of 102 schools across the nation that tried out homework hot line systems for two years as part of a national effort known as the Bridge Project.

Results released last month from the first evaluation of the project found that the systems are an effective way to increase communication between parents and their children's schools.

What's more, parents who use the systems say they feel less stressed at work as a result.

"Even motivated teachers have no time to make that call or write that note or have a 30-minute conference," said project evaluator Jerold P. Bauch, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "I'm strongly convinced that technology applications like this are the ways that all schools should improve parent involvement."

The $1.4 million project began in 1995 with funding from the American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care, a group formed by national corporations such as IBM, Exxon, Xerox, and Aetna Life and Casualty Co., to help employees achieve a better balance between family and work.

The elementary, middle, and high schools that took part in the project--located in communities ranging from San Jose, Calif., to Stamford, Conn.--were chosen based on whether they served employees of those corporations.

Each school received about $15,000 worth of equipment, training, and technical support. The project also paid the monthly fees for the system's telephone lines--a cost of $31.50 a month, for example, in Marietta, Ga.

Menus and Magnets

In addition to posting homework assignments, teachers used the hot lines to give parents tips on helping their children with their schoolwork or to talk about the day's lessons. Schools distributed refrigerator magnets with the hot line numbers to families.

Parents in some communities could also leave messages for teachers, and students could call the school to find out the lunch menu.

"I've had several parents tell me it's become a daily car-phone ritual to call up and find out what students are studying that day and then to have a conversation about it at dinner," said Principal Steven M. Constantino of Stonewall Jackson High.

He used the system's "all call" function to phone parents with recorded reminders of upcoming meetings. As a result, he said, attendance at the school's annual January orientation for incoming freshmen increased to 1,000 this year from 50 the previous year.

In the summer, the school also posted reading lists and the hours of the guidance office on voice mail.

Contacts between parents and participating schools increased by an average of more than 400 percent the first year, according to the evaluation. On average, each hot line logged more than 11 calls a day.

The researchers also surveyed the employees of the sponsoring corporations and found that 43 percent of those parents reported using the system regularly. Half said they were more involved in their children's schooling and that their children did more homework as a result of the hot lines.

One-third also reported feeling less anxious at work because of fewer worries about their children's schooling.

"At the high school level, it seems to be difficult to get parents involved," said Mr. Constantino. "The lesson we learned was that because parents don't come doesn't mean they don't care."

One drawback to the system is that parents will quickly stop using it if teachers do not update their recorded messages daily, Mr. Bauch warned.

He predicted that a new federal law will ease another potential downside to the system--the monthly phone bill. Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, schools will be eligible for discounts ranging from 20 percent to 90 percent on telephone lines beginning next year.

The researchers don't yet know for sure whether the hot lines will lead to better learning or higher grades for students. But, Mr. Constantino said, "I want to believe that if kids and parents are more attuned to the important activities going on at school, then their grades will go up."

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