Staying involved in your child's schooling can be challenging

November 18, 1999|By JoEllen Barnhart

Educators stress the importance of staying involved in your child's education. I couldn't agree more. But what do you do when work and school hours occur at the same time? Staying involved in your child's schooling is a huge challenge - thanks to the work obligations that often collide with daytime school meetings, volunteering, transporting kids to and from school, and most importantly, communicating effectively and frequently with teachers and administrators.

cont. from lifestyle

My husband and I recently took off work to appear before our children's teachers in the annual event known as the "parent-teacher conference." If you have a child in the public school system, you know about this quick, unnerving event.

We parents look at each other as we enter and leave the school building, never speaking but understanding the unspoken: "Make a good impression on the teacher. Your kid is counting on you."

In precisely 15 minutes, parents or guardians stand trial for their child's school performance and behavior. From my experience, elementary school parents must sit in their appointed seats measuring approximately 2-by-2 inches. I'm a veteran now. I begin dieting the first day school in preparation for this exercise, and I know to wear stretch pants.


It's always fun to see my 6-foot-2-inch husband, wearing a suit and tie, sit in a second-grader's chair, his hands grasping his contorted legs.

Too bad if little Johnny just moved to a different school district, had to be hospitalized for pneumonia for three days and wakes up six times a night screaming that his teacher has just turned into Godzilla, you get only 15 minutes - no more, no less - to receive a report on his academic performance and social integration. One more second would create a domino effect on the 23 other 15-minute parent-teacher conferences scheduled tightly behind you. And these conferences must occur during regular daytime school hours!

I can't help but wonder - what happens if these conferences run over the allotted time? Does the school building turn into a pumpkin at the end of the day?

But back to the premise of my story - staying involved in your child's education.

Blending work and school obligations often poses tangled logistical problems for any parent working outside the home. The demands and lack of flexibility by schools and employers can leave parents in a lurch and often to blame for not tending to their child's education.

My husband and I are lucky. We have jobs and employers who allow us to rearrange work schedules. But what happens to parents who do not have options, who may have started a new job with no accrued vacation time or who have to parent alone?

Working Mother magazine recently set out to find schools that strive both to accommodate the unique requirements of working families and to enhance the school-family relationship.

The magazine found some creative solutions.

One school in Harlem Consolidated School District in Machesney Park, Ill., has been using technology as a teaching tool for the past seven years. The school district uses the Internet to help facilitate communication between home and school.

Along with a districtwide Web site and links to administrators, each school has a home page, as do many teachers. Parents and students may check lunch menus, school calendars, homework assignments and upcoming activities.

Parents also may view online pictures of kids' artwork and download various learning challenges. E-mail is encouraged, instead of sending notes back and forth. A section of the Web site even permits confidential conferences between parents and teachers.

Connecticut has dozens of in-school parent resource rooms offering traditional library services as well as toy lending, formal meeting space, CPR training, adult education, play groups, workshops, rocking chairs for nursing moms, comfy couches and COFFEE!

Hours are extended to after work and Saturday mornings and the activities are open to home caregivers.

"Caring Communities," a statewide program in Missouri, follows a welcoming trend across the United States toward schools serving as community hubs.

School buildings often are kept open during the evening and weekends for sports, clubs, adult education and senior gatherings.

One school PTA offered dinner meetings at no cost to bridge the problem of feeding children before nighttime activities.

Regardless of the method, one resounding theme connects all of the creative strategies: Schools have a responsibility to develop practices that are responsive, flexible and helpful to families so families may in turn use their strengths to help children succeed in school.

Who knows, maybe future parent-teacher conferences in Washington County will include comfy couches, Saturday hours and a good cup of hot coffee.

But, most importantly, more time to discuss what matters most - educating our children.

JoEllen Barnhart is assistant to the director for Frostburg State University's Hagerstown Center. She has three sons.

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