Most educators agree that parental involvement is a key ingredient in how well a student learns. A small school in the Silicon Valley town of Saratoga, California, has taken this truism and run with it. Christa McAuliffe Elementary School (named after the schoolteacher killed in the Challenger shuttle disaster) has a program that not only encourages parents to be active members in their children's education but also requires it.
Parents with kids at McAuliffe are expected to spend two roughly ninety-minute sessions (three if they have two children) every week in their children's classrooms. And they don't simply drop in. Rather, they are initially required to attend a seven-session STEP (Systemic Training for Effective Parenting) class, designed to help increase their usefulness when they do appear in class. That usefulness goes well beyond simply being teachers' adjuncts.
"Our parents are not just aides in the back of the classroom," says McAuliffe principal Michael Kalb. "We recognize that parents are a child's first teacher and extend this notion into the classroom. Parents lead lessons based on their own personal expertise or interests." Doctors, for instance, may use experiences in their daily work to teach biology. Architects might hold forth on graphic design, or bring real-life examples to a geometry class.
But for busy parents, no matter how enthusiastic they may be about the school, even one morning a week is a significant commitment. Some parents react enthusiastically; others struggle to find even one morning or evening a month when they can come in. So five months seems a reasonable period for the launch.
Even though Saratoga is located in a famously affluent area where many successful firms like Apple and Hewlett-Packard have adopted an enlightened attitude about accommodating employees' lives, work hours tend to be long and business travel frequent. Not everyone who wants to meet the school's classroom requirement can find enough time. So the program has built-in ways to broaden parental participation.
"People ask how our parents do it," says Kalb. "For instance, what about working single parents? So we are very flexible in coming up with alternatives."
He explains that parents who can't find the time to spend in the classroom work out other ways they can contribute to the overall effort of the program. This might mean something as simple as photocopying for a teacher in the evening or as technical as volunteering after hours to help set up computer systems and take care of software or hardware problems. And then there are field trips, sometimes as many as five a month, when the call goes out for chaperones. At McAuliffe, there are always plenty of volunteers to answer that call, be they parents who have managed to fill their classroom commitment or those looking for other ways to improve their kids' school.
Since McAuliffe is a public elementary school with a level of parental input usually associated with private schools, Kalb admits that not all parents are enthusiastic about the demands put on them, including the STEP course. But he says he's able to get parents excited by emphasizing the success of the students who have moved into higher grades.
"High schools report that our students know how to research and work very well in a group," Kalb said. He attributes this, in part, to the level of expertise and enthusiasm that parents bring to the classroom.
Though a good number of the parents' employers understand the need to make weekly involvement possible, Kalb would like to see a nationwide revolution in educational support. This includes time off for parents so they can work on their children's education.
Kalb feels that an effective program can start off in small increments. Getting parents into the classroom one evening a month, even just to talk to the teacher about the child's strengths and weaknesses, can foster great improvement.
Bringing parents into the school on a regular, required basis can result in better educational policies. Ben Maisel, a longtime teacher at McAuliffe, believes that parents learn as much as their children when they participate at school. "People need to take a hard look at the test-based accountability approach and think about the motivation," he says. "Is this for the advancement of the student, or is it politically motivated?"
He says that if more parents understood how the system worked, and what was required of teachers, more of them would be interested in the policies, both local and national, that affect their children's education.