Special Report

For More Information, Press 1...

By Bess Keller — October 01, 1998 7 min read

For a certain group of parents, Judy Biancani’s lightly tripping voice is Moon Mountain Elementary School.

When they call the school’s information line and press the keys for the 1st grade teacher’s extension, they hear a message like this one from last spring:

This week, our concern is on bears. We are going to be studying bears in their habitat and obtaining factual information about them. We will be singing bear songs ... [and] estimating, counting, sorting, and graphing Gummi bears. We’re going to be reading bear stories and writing bear stories. Our teddy bears from home are invited to join us on Wednesday, May 27, and stay in our room for a few days-of course, that’s with parental permission.

With her careful diction, Biancani just might put parents in mind of their own days sitting cross-legged on the floor, with the teacher’s face peering out from behind a book. But even if nostalgia doesn’t appeal to them, there’s news of upcoming birthday parties, a homework update, and a fact about bears that students can whisper into Biancani’s ear and then win a little prize.

Announcements like these are part of an effort in 285 schools nationwide to increase parent involvement through a voice-messaging system called the Bridge Project. Moon Mountain teachers began using the system, which can be modified to allow parents to leave messages as well, last year.

“This gives any parent an opportunity to have just as much information, and sometimes more, than the people who volunteer in the school,” says Mary Lou Micheaels, the coordinator of the project for the Washington elementary school district, which includes Moon Mountain and serves northwest Phoenix and parts of suburban Glendale. “Every parent needs the same information.”

With study after study confirming that parent involvement tends to boost student achievement, voice messaging is just one of several Information Age tools that educators are using to link school and home.

E-mail and Web pages, for schools with their own sites, now expand the possibilities for parents and teachers to exchange information. In Charlotte, N.C., IBM has developed an information system that allows parents to view their children’s work on-line.

And some schools and districts are loaning laptops to students or putting desktop computers in their homes. In an ongoing study of Indiana’s Buddy System Project, in which schools loan computers to the families of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders, three-quarters of the parents in a sample of 55 families said they were involved with their child’s homework in the first year of the program, and more than 40 percent said the computer helped the family to do activities together.

But the Bridge Project shows that even simple and relatively inexpensive forms of technology can be used to increase parent involvement.

A school needs a 386 personal computer and a sound card hooked to two phone lines to run the system. This gives every teacher the chance to post messages on an individual voice “bulletin board.”

It also allows school officials to post general information and to deliver messages to students’ home phone numbers. Teachers can call, for example, the parent of their students with a reminder about conferences or a field trip.

Parents, meanwhile, need only a touch-tone phone to access the bulletin boards 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

All of the Washington district’s 32 elementary and junior high schools are expected to be using the messaging system this fall, thanks in part to a $114,000 grant from the American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care, or ABC, a group of national corporations working to help their employees better balance work and family life.

The district contributed 41,000, and has raised $16,000 from other sources.

District leaders say their goal for the messaging system is to have parents representing half the 25,000 students in the district calling teachers daily.

That objective has been met in some but not all of the 102 schools across the nation that began in 1995 to use the Bridge Project, which was developed by Jerold P. Bauch, now a professor emeritus of education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

“I realized that teachers ... have no extra time, no extra energy,” Bauch says, “so there’s not a chance that parent involvement will improve unless we give teachers new tools.”

Overall, a study by Bauch and others of the project’s first year shows that the number of teacher-parent contacts increased more than fourfold after the start of the program-from about three a day per teacher to 14. Some 43 percent of the families used the system at least once a week.

When the researchers looked at parent who were also employees of the sponsoring companies, about half said they were more involved in their children’s education and half believed their children completed more homework.

“It can make a huge difference in employees’ lives,” says Leanne Barrett of the Bo ton-based Work/Family Directions, which administers the project for ABC.

With the Washington district’s project just a year old, officials there have only a preliminary idea of how many parents it is reaching and with what effect. The rate of average daily participation ranged from 48 percent of families at one school to 6 percent at another.

District leaders believe that the Bridge Project is likely to improve communication with parents becau e it moves away from what community-relations director Nedda Shafir called the outdated assumptions of the “Leave It to Beaver” era. For parents or guardians without custody of their children, working odd or long hours, traveling, short on transportation, intimidated by schools, or just as clueless as parents have always been about the content of the school day, the system makes keeping up easier than it has ever been.

“Most parents don’t know what kids are doing at school,” says coordinator Micheaels, herself the parent of two children in district schools and a former teacher. “With this, you find all the neat things they’re doing every day. You get a different picture of the teachers, too.”

“It’s where you can find out absolutely everything, including future deadlines, and you can leave a message,” says parent Kathryn Michael, as she waits at a door of Moon Mountain for her son to emerge from the dim hall behind her.

C.J. Kraus has her daughter, a kindergartner, by the hand, and several paces away stands her 8th grade son, Nick Vann, a student at nearby Mountain Sky Junior High. Kraus says she doesn’t call the kindergarten teacher’s voice bulletin board because her daughter “isn’t having any problems at school.” On the other hand, she sees the junior high’s system as “a safeguard.”

Nick explains: “If! forget my homework, she can just call,” he says with a little nod in his mother’s direction.

Over at Mountain Sky, veteran math teacher Pat Farmer says it didn’t take long to get in the groove of recording a daily message.

“Parents will be your partners if you let them,” Farmer says. “I can’t call 150 sets of parents every day, and even if five parents call, it’s worth it.”

First grade teacher Biancani, on the other hand, remains a skeptic. Although she faithfully records weekly messages, she thinks the response from parents isn’t worth the time it took her to master writing a script and taping her voice. She says she’d like to go back to weekly newsletters, and she still sends the occasional one.

Even when Biancani learned that parents called to hear her messages more than 100 times during the final weeks of last school year-the third-highest tally in the school-she held tight to her view.

“It didn’t work for me,” she says. “I get better response from the newsletter.”

Other Bridge projects across the country have found that teacher commitment to daily recordings is the biggest key to increasing parents’ calls.

“Parents must believe they will miss something if they don’t call,” says Micheaels, who has managed the Washington district’s $114,000 grant from ABC.

Most teachers interviewed for this story say that for some parents, a habit has been formed. Older students, too, say they use the system for checking homework assignments.

No one assumes, though, that the convenience of voice messaging will make much of a difference with troubled families, and Moon Mountain Principal Mary Lou Palmer stresses that the school’s system of sending brief daily reports to parents about their children’s behavior will remain in place.

“What [the Bridge Project] assumes is that you have a basic interest in what your child’s report card looks like, whether they are doing homework,” Superintendent Thomas F. Reale Jr. says. “This enhances that interest and makes you more of a partner.”

Reale sees another possible use for the system: surveying parents to tap their perspectives on district decisions.

Micheaels is still waiting for the program to take firm hold at a few schools. In most, though, fine-tuning and more feedback to teachers will help the program reach its potential.

“It’s a continuous process needing reinforcement, training, evaluation,” she says. “But teachers are finding it beneficial, and they don’t want to be without it.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1998 edition of Education Week