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The Family-School Connection

by Fred D. Baldwin

Shirley Reed is happy about the change in her six-year-old daughter Bridget, a student at Owsley County Elementary School in Booneville, Kentucky. "Last year she didn't want to come to school at all," Reed says. "My volunteering helped her. She knows I'm here, and it's made all the difference in the world."

Reed is one of many parent and community volunteers who show up daily at Owsley Elementary. Originally, she just wanted to offer her daughter a comforting presence during the school day, but volunteering has offered some unexpected benefits.

"You'll be looking at papers," Reed explains. "Then you can go home and help her. She'd say, 'I can't do it!' But you help her, and it's, 'I can do it!' "

Reed's experience exemplifies the findings of decades of educational research, according to a 1997 report published by the U.S. Department of Education, Family Involvement in Children's Education: Successful Local Approaches. "When families are involved in their children's education," the report's authors write, "children earn higher grades and receive higher scores on tests, attend school more regularly, complete more homework, demonstrate more positive attitudes and behaviors, graduate from high school at higher rates, and are more likely to enroll in higher education than children with less involved families."

They might have added, says Stan Maynard, a professor of education at Marshall University, in Huntington, West Virginia, that payoffs can extend beyond the immediate family. "As you train the parents on how they'll help their child in the classroom," Maynard says, "they'll take that skill out and maybe help another child. That's a win-win."

Building Partnerships

Owsley Elementary employs a full-time coordinator for parent involvement, Pam Chandler. The school has also made space for a Parent Center. Each morning, teachers drop by the center to make entries on a "daily request log," asking for help on one thing or another. In the Parent Center, volunteers work at tables and office machines, but some also go to classrooms to work as aides. Chandler says the number of parent volunteers has roughly doubled over the past five years. She estimates that 10 to 15 parents work at the school on any given day and that, over the course of a school year, about 150 different individuals, both parents and other community members, contribute significant amounts of time.

Teachers are grateful for the extra hands. Fourth-grade teacher Kim Johnson says parent volunteers in the schools are helpful for children who, for a variety of reasons, receive little help at home. "It gives them support that some of them might not have," she says.

Carolyn Jackson, a second-grade teacher, says the help from volunteers enables her to spend more time on lessons. She adds that the participation of volunteers reinforces the school's efforts to raise academic standards, particularly with parents whose expectations for their children might otherwise be low. Recently, 14 out of the 16 families with students in one of her classes were represented at a school-sponsored parents' night that once would have attracted "probably two." "When they see other kids," Jackson says, "they have more awareness of what a child should be doing at that age. They'll call and ask, 'How's my child doing?' I can remember in the past you didn't see a parent unless there was a problem."

When Owsley Elementary teachers say "in the past," they usually mean before Pam Chandler began work as a parent coordinator. Chandler's efforts started in the late 1980s with the Parent Intervention program, designed to teach parenting and teaching skills to parents whose school experiences may have been short and unsatisfactory. One of Chandler's duties was to make home visits when children had school attendance problems. From the start, she chose to stress parent-school partnerships.

"I didn't just want to go in and say, 'You've got a problem,' " Chandler says. "I encouraged them to come in, and they started coming. I've had them say, 'There's nothing I can do; I can't even read.' I always say, 'There's something you can do.' "

Chandler herself dropped out of high school after completing the ninth grade. She earned a general equivalency diploma soon after leaving school and later began taking college courses. She now has an associate's degree and expects to complete work toward a bachelor's degree soon. "I can tell them how important it is to get an education from my own experience," she says.

An important side benefit of the parent volunteer program in Owsley County is that other parents are following a similar course. Linda Moore, who now works as a physical education aide for a modest stipend, began as a parent volunteer. Many years ago, she left school even earlier than Chandler—though not willingly. "My daddy took me out to work on the farm when I was in the sixth grade," she says. When her youngest daughter started saying that she didn't like school, Moore began bringing her in and staying to help teachers. "The longer I stayed here," she says, "the better I liked it." She now works as an aide five days a week, and is studying for a GED.

Stephen F. Jackson, Owsley County's superintendent of schools, emphasizes that the volunteer program is more than a strategy to stretch scarce financial resources. "No matter if this were a wealthy district," Jackson says, "I'd like to have more parent involvement. Once you get a parent involved, that parent is your best public relations person. When they see a teacher struggling, it's not 'That school....' It's 'Our school....' "

Reaching Out to the Community

The parent program continues to evolve, says Glenn Baker, who became principal of Owsley Elementary in 1995, and one goal is to broaden the school's base of support. A survey taken last school year revealed that both teachers and community members felt that, while parent involvement in the school was strong, broader community involvement was lower than it should be. Teachers tended to believe that the community as a whole wasn't aware of school problems; by contrast, community members felt that they hadn't been asked to do anything.

"They were more right than we were," Baker says. The school now puts out a monthly eight-page newsletter that includes educational projects parents and children can do together, but also notes work by community volunteers. It's now going not just to elementary school parents but to every household in Owsley County, including those with no children anywhere in the school system.

Baker is especially determined to raise pupils' scores in math, and is involving parents and community members in the effort. Last year Owsley Elementary became a "catalyst school" under the Appalachian Rural Systemic Initiative (ARSI), which has worked since 1996 to improve teaching in science and math throughout much of the Appalachian Region. (See "On a Roll for Science and Math" in the May-August 1998 issue of Appalachia.)

"It made us focus," Baker says of the ARSI affiliation, and find new ways to improve instruction. "We always wanted parents here, but we have never made the effort to get community members here." The school now sponsors a special program for community-wide emphasis on math and science; this year it will last three weeks. Community members—lawyers, nurses, postal workers, and others—come into the schools and explain why math and science are important in their jobs. "Parent and community volunteers," says Baker, "have helped us brainstorm ways to celebrate our academic successes just like we do for athletic successes."

Owsley Elementary's efforts win applause from Wimberly Royster, principal investigator for the ARSI project. "The support of the community is necessary to improve schools," Royster says. "The local people are the ones involved and not the 'ones from outside.' "

Owsley County schools are also supported by Forward in the Fifth, a private, nonprofit local education fund working from Berea to bring schools and communities together in eastern and southern Kentucky. Ginny Eager, executive director of Forward in the Fifth, considers both parent and community involvement fundamental to school improvement.

"Everybody knows and accepts that individual students perform better when their parents or primary caregivers are involved," Eager says, "even if it's just seeing that they get up and eat breakfast and come to school. The same thing happens for a school when the community that surrounds it assumes that parent role for the school. When the whole community is engaged in supporting the school, it helps all students to do better. That's important because 70 percent of the population is people without kids in public schools. You have to have the support of those people to make a real difference for all kids."

Baker, speaking from the perspective of a principal, summarizes the benefits of the parent program something like this:

  • parents increase their level of interest in their children's education and insist that the children attend school regularly and complete homework assignments;
  • teachers supported by volunteer aides are able to spend more time on task—that is, on actual instruction;
  • children see adults in schools more often, absorbing the message that education is important; and
  • the community as a whole provides more support for education.

No one suggests that participation of parents and community members in public schools offers a quick fix for problems in education. But quick fixes aren't what the Owsley Elementary parent involvement program—or others like it around the Appalachian Region—exists to provide. Recently a second-grade teacher planning a classroom play wrote this request in the Parent Center's log: "masks, 3 pig, 1 wolf."

No doubt she got what she asked for, and she picked a good story for Owsley Elementary, one that suggests how it's confronting its challenges. Like the wisest and most painstaking of the three little storybook pigs, the school, parents, and community are building solidly for the future—not brick-by-brick, but child-by-child and family-by-family.

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.