Parental involvement makes a difference for students

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What's the best way to get more parents involved in their child's education?
That's the million dollar question, say officials at the Moffat County School District.

According to recent requirements from the national No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, school districts must seek input from parents to receive funds for special education programs.

In addition to that ruling, the district wants to boost parental involvement, claiming it as one of their 2003-04 goals.

And school officials are just about willing to bend over backwards to get it.

"I don't know what the magic is that will get more parents into the schools," said Trish Snyder, who recently became a Moffat County School District Board member.

Before entering the policy-making position, Snyder juggled roles on separate Parent Accountability Committees at Ridgeview Elementary School and Craig Intermediate School, the two schools her children have attended. The parent of four district students also served on citizen committees to hire principals and school evaluation review boards.

"I know that some people don't have the benefit that I do," said the stay-at-home mom. "But when your children see that being involved in their education is important to you, (their education) becomes important to them."

Where are the parents?

In general, parent involvement is higher at elementary and middle schools in the district than at the high school, said school administrators.

On the whole, a majority of parents aren't attending events designed specifically to learn about students' progress, despite district attempts to lure parents in through a variety of tactics.

To combat the issue, school officials have altered parent-teacher meeting times, initiated hands-on gatherings to show parents what their children are learning, and occasionally have offered parents a dinner or breakfast meal to make meeting times more convenient.

Twice a year, parents are invited to attend parent-teacher conferences where parents meet directly with teachers. Parent Accountability Committees at each district school often offer a monthly invitation to all parents to discuss concerns, offer input into the budget or suggest policy changes.

High School Principal Jane Krogman said parent-teacher conferences held in the fall are better attended than meetings in the spring. About 70 percent of parents show for fall meetings while only 40 percent show later in the year, Krogman said.

The Parent Accountability Committee meetings however, draw roughly a dozen parents at most, which is paltry showing considering the high school hosts about 350 students, she said.

"We've tried to think outside the box," Krogman said. "Once we called each parent who was a regular to some of those meetings and none showed."

Only about 15 parents attended a pancake breakfast, which doubled as a meeting held earlier this year. Next month, the school plan to send parents postcards to get the word out because, "our notification obviously isn't working," she said.

But school administrators know it's difficult to use meeting attendance as an indicator of parent involvement. Busy parents may work conflicting hours or choose other ways to chart their child's academic progress, they said.

According to statistics by the U.S. Department of Education, students benefit from parent involvement on several levels.

Students with parents involved in their schools have fewer behavioral problems and are more likely to complete secondary school, a 2001 study said.

And parent involvement may play a factor in how students are treated at school, another study suggests.

"Parental involvement allows parents to monitor school and classroom activities and to coordinate their efforts with teachers," reported the Child Trends Data Bank Web site. "Teachers of students with highly involved parents tend to give greater attention to those students and they tend to identify problems that might inhibit student learning at earlier stages."

Getting into the classroom

Giving parents the inside scoop has an entirely different meaning at the preschool level.

Educators at the district's Early Childhood Center are required to make twice-yearly home visits as a state requirement for the scholarship program. Parents are also required to pick up and drop off students at the school, an act that gets them in the school doors and feeling comfortable in the classroom, said Sarah Hepworth, the program director.

"A lot of times we get criticized for not keeping a professional distance, but I think that's what creates barriers," she said. "This has helped us develop close relationships with the parents. Because we've been in their homes and on their turf, they feel they can trust us."

When children are young and starting school for the first time, parents jump on the chance to be involved in their child's education, Hepworth said. Yet, by the time children enter grade school and then high school, parents often feel they've lost their authority on school grounds, she reasoned.

But parents can enter a district classroom and at least observe whenever they want, Snyder said.

It's something she's done a number of times, but she's heard comments from other parents who say they feel unwelcome when they do.

"It's OK if I come into a classroom and a teacher chooses not to utilize me," she said.

Though Synder personally has never felt unwelcome in a classroom, she said parents should take the initiative if they want to get more involved.

"I feel like parents think they have to abide by what they think the teacher thinks. Who cares?" Snyder said. "Does your child want you in the classroom?"

Open arms

The district started pushing for more parent involvement in 2001. Last year, it circulated its first district-wide survey to gauge parent satisfaction with the school system. Almost 70 percent of parents returned the questionnaire.

Aside from poorly attended meetings, parents of district middle school students are more than eager to volunteer time during school hours, Superintendent Pete Bergmann said.

"I'd say that we see fluctuations in parent involvement," he said. "The elementary schools have seen a significant increase, then it steadily wanes into the higher grades."

Now the district is required by law to include parents of special education students or children receiving Title I status in drafting new policy.

Each district school that receives Title I funds must hold at least one annual meeting with parents to explain the program and their right to be involved.

It's an opportunity to open the doors of communication for parents and its implications reach further than the school hallways, said Special Education Director Archie Neil.

"In a small community like Craig, parents need to know the resources that are available to them," he said. "The biggest thing is communication. People need to know that it's not us against them, it's all of us in this together."

Other district efforts reflect a plan to keep the doors wide open. District administrators hope to do whatever it takes to welcome parents more fully into their child's education.

"We're more than willing to do anything that works," Assistant Superintendent Joel Sheridan said. "If a group of parents said they'd like to meet at 7 a.m., we'd do that."

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@craigdailypress.com.

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