Several days a week, Shirley Jones and Betty Sabo of Emporia, Va., comb the neighborhoods of their small, rural community. They look for bicycles propped against walls, children’s garments hanging from a clothesline, or toys strewn about a yard. They knock on the doors of these houses and invite parents and children outside. Then the women climb into their 36-foot customized recreational vehicle, parked nearby, to wait for the parents and their toddlers to congregate on the street.
Sabo, a resource specialist, and Jones, an instructional aide, are employed by the Greensville County Public Schools to travel the main streets and back roads of southeastern Virginia as part of a three-year-old effort to turn the traditional relationship between schools and parents on its head. Using the mobile Parent Resource Center, the school system is reaching out, says Margaret Lee, the district’s Chapter 1 coordinator and the project’s creator, “to build bridges between schools and the parents of at-risk kids.”
Not so long ago, it was difficult to get parents in the area involved in their children’s education. Some didn’t know the right questions to ask. Others were wary of the schools because their children had been singled out for bad behavior or poor academic performance. “So,” Lee says, “I thought, if parents aren’t coming to us, why not go out to them?”
In 1990, the former teacher pitched a proposal for a mobile outreach program to the Family/School Partnership, a subsidiary of the U.S. Education Department’s Fund for the Improvement and Reform of Schools and Teaching. Out of a pool of 436 candidates, the Greensville County school district was one of 31 applicants awarded a grant. With the $97,000 from FIRST, Lee set out to transform a mobile unit into a traveling library, classroom, and meeting place for parents. “I had read about mobile classrooms in West Virginia,” she explains, “and we already knew about the concept of a bookmobile. I just took the idea of moving and extended it a little further.”
The goal of the project was to create a vehicle that would allow parents and teachers to work together to improve the learning environment at home. The mobile unit, Lee says, provides a safe and neutral link between the home and school. “We’re on parents’ turf, so it’s non- threatening,” she points out.
The district posts the mobile unit’s schedule in the local newspaper, and two part-time parent-assistants make advance calls to let parents know the resource center will be making a visit to their neighborhood. The van also makes regular on-site visits to six area businesses so parents can stop in before or after work or during short breaks. Several area employers may eventually allow the center’s team to use conference rooms to work with parents or agree to some “work-release time” for those who want to visit the van.
On this particular winter day, the mobile unit is abuzz with activity. Sabo and four parents sit in the front of the van, chatting about their children’s school- work. At the rear, two toddlers are playing with toys on the floor and several others are building towers with colorful blocks on a low counter. Meanwhile, another group of parents sits at a table clipping newspapers. One shows off a pile of words she has cut from headlines, articles, and advertisements. “This is for my 7-year-old daughter, so she can group them into words she knows and words she doesn’t know,” says Willie Mae Tillar. “She can use them for school.”
The center’s team members emphasize the use of practical, no-cost materials as learning tools. For example, they show parents how to use common household items to sharpen their children’s reading skills and encourage creative play. The mobile unit also offers a host of materials for parents to check out for a few days at a time. Stacks of books, games, pamphlets, and instructional videos cover shelves inside the van’s cabinets. And signs with motivational messages about spending “quality time” at home with children are posted throughout the center.
A roster on the wall lists all of the parents who have made contact with the resource team. Markers next to the names indicate the number of visits each parent has made. Lee estimates that about 400 adults have stopped in, roughly 60 percent of the parents of Greensville’s 2,800 students. Henrietta Edwards, mother of three Greensville County schoolchildren, says she finds the center has not only taught her to tutor her children at home but has also enabled her to share ideas with other parents. “It really helps because it actually gets the neighborhood together,” she explains. “Even though Emporia is a small area, I wish there was more than one of these.”
The community’s interest in the mobile unit has been so overwhelming that Lee just created, with the help of a second government grant, a walk-in center near one of the district’s elementary schools. There, two parent-assistants help other parents construct “make and take” learning devices to use at home.
Lee plans to have teachers from the district come to the walk-in center to lead workshops and hold parent-teacher conferences. She also hopes that parents who have found effective ways to tutor their children will drop by to share their ideas with others. “We try to show parents that you have to take an active role,” Lee says. “You can’t totally relinquish your responsibility to the school.”
Word of the district’s success with the mobile unit has traveled beyond the community’s borders. The school system has received many inquiries, some from places as far afield as Canada and California. “We’ve gotten a tremendous response from the outside,” says Dorothea Shannon, superintendent of the Greensville Emporia schools. “There are school divisions that are modeling programs after ours.”
Shannon grins when she remembers a recent phone call she received about the program. “We had a parent outside of the county call and ask if she could come to our center,” she says. “This is truly a success because people just keep coming back.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Taking It on the Road