Districts Turn to Parent Counselors To Bolster School-Family Ties

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It can be hard to live up to a name like Zion.

Located in the corridor between Milwaukee and Chicago, Zion, Ill., falls far short of utopia for some families living there. For them, it is a stopover in the quest for jobs along the shore of Lake Michigan.

But Superintendent Barbara Christiansen wants to change that pattern. She has proposed that Zion's public schools become a base from which to build a more stable community and, ultimately, healthier families.

The school system, she contends, should connect needy parents with jobs, affordable housing, and appropriate social services in an effort to insure that children attend school ready to learn.

Last month, the Zion school board approved the allocation of $35,000 a year to hire a "parental administrator" who will be responsible for creating a school-based, collaborative network to meet these broad goals.

As educators emphasize the importance of parent involvement, the concept is gaining credence. Also known as parent counselors, facilitators, and coordinators, these professionals work closely with parents, encouraging them through workshops, counseling, and home visits to become more active and confident participants in their children's education.

"I am purposely not selecting someone who is a social worker, counselor, or psychologist," Ms. Christiansen emphasized. "I'm looking for a community-development specialist, someone with grant-writing and networking skills as well as the personal drive and discipline to organize a community."

It is unclear how many school districts have hired such professionals, but Heather Weiss, the director of the Harvard Family Research Project, believes they are an outcome of several converging social and educational trends.

"If we are going to get serious about parent involvement, we need someone whose job it is to worry about these issues," she said. "The obvious solution is to hire someone to be a facilitator or coordinator."

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley supported this idea in "Strong Families, Strong Schools," the national campaign launched this fall to encourage greater parent involvement. (See Education Week, 09/14/94.)

In districts across the nation, educators are tinkering with ways to accomplish that goal. As Ms. Christiansen observed, the need is greatest where parents confront chronic economic, cultural, or social obstacles.

In September, following recommendations by Superintendent Argie K. Johnson, the Chicago school board created a three-member department to focus on school- and family-support services.

Andrew Johnson, the director of the department, said he hopes all the city's schools will eventually have parent counselors.

In some cities, the concept is already well entrenched.

Willis J. Knight has been a parenting facilitator for four years at Taylor Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

'A Listening Board'

He has held countless parenting workshops, helped make day care available before and after school, and established a family-resource center staffed with representatives from social-service agencies.

"I find that as people get to know me, they'll come in to deal with specific problems," he said. "I'm a listening board."

Mr. Knight said more parents participate in the school each year.

In Chicago, Andrew Johnson and his staff are planning their first major project: to deal with the growing numbers of grandparents who are rearing their grandchildren.

Full-time professionals have counseled parents in the Nashville public schools since the late 1980's, said Susan Goss, the district's director of elementary personnel. The metropolitan area has about 15 such coordinators for parents of children from preschool through 6th grade, she said.

Funding for parent administrators can come from a variety of federal, state, local, and private sources. The United Way and the Seattle city government, for example, support 49 family-support workers in the public schools.

Funding, however, is just one obstacle to widespread implementation of the concept.

"The debate is not whether it's going to happen, but how it's going to happen," said James Vopat, the founder of the Parent Project, a Milwaukee-based effort to introduce parents to classroom teaching and learning methods. "There are not many models out there, and that is where the hesitancy is coming from."

Proving Their Worth

Educators and administrators will also need evidence that a parent administrator is worth the expense, noted Michael J. Nakkula, a lecturer at Harvard's graduate school of education.

Some of that evidence may be found in teacher training programs as they become more responsive to the concept of full-service schools.

At Jesse Kean Elementary School, one of four full-service schools in Lakeland, Fla., advanced doctoral students in psychology work with parents at the school's parent drop-in center.

Ultimately, experts said, the decision to hire parent administrators will depend on each district's needs.

"It's an idea that can't be forced on anyone," Ms. Christiansen observed. "It may not be until a community really hurts that they decide they need this kind of help."

Vol. 14, Issue 15

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