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Improving parental involvement has taken on an increased emphasis due to the five-year strategic plan adopted by the Board in March 2009, said Assistant Superintendent Mike Robey at the School Board’s April 19 meeting.

The Strategic Plan contains goals to “create a climate that is welcoming and supportive of parents and guardians in each school” and to “nurture school-home partnerships that engage parents and guardians more effectively.” In addition, one of the Board’s three-year goals is to create more effective parent-school partnerships.

Mr. Robey, joined by a panel of administrators, principals, teachers and parents, explained what the District was doing to improve parental involvement starting at ages birth through five at the Family Center, at the pre-K through third grade levels through the SMART START initiative launched a few weeks ago, and at the pre-K through eighth-grade levels through the Johns Hopkins Family Involvement Initiative that was approved by the Board several years ago.

A common theme in each of the programs is to help parents understand they play a critical role in educating their children and providing them practical ways to help in their children’s education.

The Family Center

The Family Center serves approximately 150 children from ages birth to five-years old. Family Center facilitator Angela Johnson said, “Our number one goal is to drive home the fact that parents are the first and most important teachers. We work with parents helping them understand that the early years are very important in terms of brain connections being made – they really need to start very early reading to children, singing to children, doing finger play with children.”

She said the Family Center provides parental education, parent workshops, and parent/child activities to assist parents understand they play a critical role in educating their children and to provide them with ways to help their children develop. She said social workers go into the homes and help create a space in the home that is dedicated for the children to work.

START SMART

School District 65 launched a new program, “SMART START,” several weeks ago. The goal is to develop partnerships with families of at-risk children to assist in the education of their children.

This year, the District invited about 200 families with four-year olds in the District’s pre-K programs to participate in the program. The families were asked to make a commitment to help their children develop literacy skills and to build a portfolio that will capture and document their learning experiences. Families will also be asked to participate in three hands-on workshops each year, which will teach parents strategies to use with their children. The District will follow up the workshops with a home visit or a telephone call to make sure parents feel comfortable using the strategies provided in the workshops.

Ms. Fogelberg said there would also be annual meetings with parents at which goals and strategies to use with their children will be discussed.

Workshops to kick off the program were held earlier this month. Samantha Richardson, literacy coach for early childhood programs, said parents were provided tips on how to help children learn to read and “stations” were set up to demonstrate activities parents can use with their children to develop reading, vocabulary and other literacy skills. Ms. Richardson said the program was received “overwhelming” well and that parents were “raving” about it.

Superintendent Hardy Murphy said the program will expand year by year as the first cohort of students advances to kindergarten, then first grade and on up to third grade. The ultimate goal is to have all students reading at grade level by the end of third grade, which is one goal of the District’s strategic plan.

Johns Hopkins Parental Involvement

Mr. Robey said the Johns Hopkins Parental Involvement Initiative has a proven track record and it contains six ways to improve parental involvement: parenting (supporting parents as caregivers, wage- earners and community members); communicating (school to home/community, home/community to school); volunteering (parents/community members as volunteers, supporters and audiences); learning at home; decision-making; and collaborating with the community.

He said the Johns Hopkins model recognizes that “all parents want the best for their children and everyone is equipped to this best in a variety of ways and manners.” The District thus is providing as many opportunities and partnerships as possible. “Not all families are comfortable with every option, and we look to provide as many options as possible,” he said.

The goal “is to help parents become more aware of their role as their child’s first and most important teacher,” said Mr. Robey.

“We all know there are parents out there who simply cannot help with homework; there are parents who cannot come to the school; there are parents who work two or three different jobs. We have to find multiple outlets and ways for them to get involved and that’s the purpose of the structure of the six types of family involvement. …[Parents] have different ways they can help their children grow and be successful.”

At the beginning of this school year, Mr. Robey said different schools were at different stages of implementing the Johns Hopkins model. Some were “more in the very beginning stages” and some were “more advanced.” This year, he said, the District worked with schools that were at the beginning stages in an effort to bring them up to a more advanced level.

Judith Treadway said, “In the Johns Hopkins project there’s a greater emphasis on engaging parents who have not traditionally been engaged in supporting their children academically. …We know that parents are engaged or not engaged for different reasons, circumstances, family make-up, culture, language, income, neighborhood issues, so there are environmental issues. So there are a lot of reasons why parents are engaged or not engaged. So that is a serious challenge to any school district to try to engage their parents who haven’t traditionally been engaged.”

She said the schools use the six types of involvement to open up more positive, constructive communications with parents. She said the math and literacy nights being provided at every school were having success. On those nights, math and literacy teachers demonstrate how parents can engage their children in their homework assignments. One critical part of this is teachers giving homework that includes “interactive exercises” that parents can engage in with their children.

Ms. Treadway said the great benefit of this is, “The child learns to respect their parent as the primary educator and as the first and longest educator they have. It also builds a bridge between the teacher and the parent because they’re on the same page.”

Each school has also set up a School Advisory Team comprised of parents, teachers and school administrators. The teams provide an opportunity for collaboration between parents, teachers and administrators to set priorities, discuss concerns, and present strategies.

At Oakton, parent-involvement activities include the “Taste of Oakton” and “Super Saturdays.” Oakton principal Churchill Daniels said “Super Saturdays” offers 14 events, each attended by about 30-35 families, among which have been literacy club, ISAT preparation, presentation of fun science projects and preparation for a science fair.

Mr. Daniels said, “We have hurdles to climb as far as engaging our more targeted populations, but I think we’ve covered a lot of ground with making the activities worthwhile and engaging and providing food and opening our doors so our parents fell comfortable coming in and learning.”

“The key to success is the relationships we’ve established,” Mr. Daniels said.