Parents of 60 students at George Beadle Middle School have been doing homework with their kids this winter, reading the teen novel "Okay for Now," answering questions and attending "doughnut discussions."
So far, the voluntary program, in place at several Millard schools, seems to be a hit, school officials say. It opens a line of communication between parents and children on coming-of-age issues, but also stresses the importance of reading, officials said.
"I've had a couple of moms say this is great because they have an excuse to get their husbands involved," said Betsy Gomez, the school's reading specialist.
Parent engagement is becoming a deliberate strategy for many Nebraska and Iowa educators as research piles up that kids with involved parents do better in school. Tactics and commitment vary by school, but metro area teachers and principals, conscious of pressure to increase test scores, are realizing they'll have a much easier row to hoe with parents at their side.
Testifying in 2010 before the U.S. Senate committee on education, family engagement researcher Anne Henderson told senators that parent involvement is critical to closing the achievement gap.
When families are engaged in the education of their children, students' test scores and grades increase, and their attendance, attitudes and behavior improve, Henderson told the committee.
In addition, Henderson said, students with engaged parents are more likely to take higher-level classes, graduate from high school and continue to postsecondary education.
The positive impact of engaging families is greatest for low-income children, she said. In 2008, two economists published a report on a study showing that schools would have to increase spending by more than $1,000 per pupil to attain the same results that family engagement would yield, Henderson said.
Engagement efforts at Midlands schools range from inviting parents to regular coffees with the principal to giving parents a voice in more substantive decisions at a school. Engagement can mean teaching new parents the importance of reading bedtime stories. Or it can mean parents and teachers teaming up to write plans for individual students that give children the greatest chance at success.
Dr. Lisa St. Clair, a researcher with the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Munroe-Meyer Institute, says Midlands schools are making progress engaging parents, but they have a ways to go.
St. Clair, who is director of the Nebraska Parental Information and Resource Center, said that while teachers and principals are experts on curriculum, parents are experts on their kids.
Teaming up produces the best achievement results, she said. It requires, however, a willingness to work together, she said.
"It takes relationship-building," St. Clair said. "Partners are not partners if they don't ever talk to each other and sort of put some things on the table, build a little of a relationship, a communication style."
Karen Stevens, director of 21st Century Learning Centers for the Nebraska Department of Education, is chairwoman of a department committee on family engagement.
Research shows that even simple actions like a parent asking a child about school or homework can help to improve achievement, she said.
Some parents have to be taught the importance of such involvement, she said. Meanwhile, some teachers need to be more willing to take parent input, she said.
"Having a parent night and showing the parent what you're doing is not nearly as engaging as having parents serving on committees, asking their opinions about different aspects of what school is doing, looking at curriculum before you buy it," Stevens said. "That kind of engagement brings about huge changes."
Angela Zabawa, first-year principal at Dawes Middle School in the Lincoln Public Schools, said her school pursues a policy of "relentless engagement."
Zabawa found some parents reluctant to send kids to Dawes because they perceived it had a bad reputation. Dawes had closed because of declining enrollment, then reopened with Zabawa at the helm.
She decided that engaging parents would battle those perceptions and help maximize achievement. The effort reaches beyond parent-teacher organizations and fundraising.
"We believe it's really important we're communicating with parents so they know what's going on at school," Zabawa said. "So they have a clear understanding of what's our mission, what are we working on. "
Her staff members divide up all Dawes families and call to invite them to important family events such as open houses, conferences, recognition ceremonies and band concerts. During these "all calls," staff log any questions or concerns from families so someone can get back to them.
Staff members use electronic messages and personal phone calls to relay positive information to families about what their students are doing, provide them with upcoming important dates and let them know how to get involved.
When the school held a soup supper last fall, it sent personal postcard invitations with RSVPs. Students were required to have an adult present, and if their parents could not attend, a staff member would sponsor them. The event attracted 500 people.
Dawes is using the school's website, Facebook and Twitter to give families and community organizations daily updates about what students and staff are doing.
In the Omaha Public Schools, parent engagement efforts vary greatly among schools, said Donna Dobson, director of elementary education.
Efforts include inviting parents to serve as regular readers and greeters in schools, opening special "parents' rooms" where parents share their arts and crafts expertise, and holding programs on renters' rights and healthy eating, Dobson said.
Jim Dermody, principal of Lewis Central Middle School in Council Bluffs, said his school reaches out but feels it could do better.
Demody requires that teachers keep communication logs to make sure they're frequently making contact with parents. He reviews the logs. He wants teachers to deliver the positive news, not just bad news.
Parents and kids are so busy outside of school that teachers have to have determination, he said.
His school, which enrolls sixth- through eighth-graders, makes an extra effort to reach out to parents when their sons and daughters are studying human growth and development, Dermody said.
Parents are invited to school to preview a video and class materials, on such topics as drug use and premarital sex, so there are no surprises, he said.
Buffalo Wild Wings donated food for the preview session last year, Dermody said.
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