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SCHOOLS COLUMN: What parent involvement looks like

This column was written by Wire editor Betty King Buginas for the West County Weekly (a weekly insert in the West County Times) and appeared in that publication Aug 24.

When Patricia Player held her first community meeting after her election to the West Contra Costa school board, she asked each person to share one memory of their school experiences. Two women said their memories were so painful they didnít want to talk about them. The incident brings home the uphill battle we face with some parents before they even step through the schoolhouse doors. Imagine where weíll be if that first experience isnít a positive one.

Pretty much everyone in education agrees we need more parent involvement. But just how they picture parents being involved varies a great deal. Some mean they want parents to make sure their kids do their homework and get to school on time. Others picture the parent volunteering in the classroom or actively involved in PTA. Still others envision parents working side by side with teachers and administrators to set policy.

Linda Takimoto says it can be all those things, and her own experiences attest to this. The first task she took on when she joined PTA was to tally grocery receipts for a redemption program. After handling just about every job including president within her local PTA, she now heads the Bayside Council of PTAs, a coalition of units from schools throughout the West Contra Costa and John Swett school districts.
Her decade of involvement leads her to believe that the first hurdle is to make all families feel welcome. Basic assumptions about parents Ė including that they read to their kids, help them with homework, and attend parent-teacher conferences -- need to be set aside. Todayís families, she notes, include single-parent households, parents whose first language isnít English, and adults who themselves had bad experiences in school.

School staff need to take the time to get to know families and their needs, to find out what the family is already doing, what they could do if given more support, and what gaps the school may need to fill.

When school employees donít get to know parents, Takimoto says, they risk missing out on discovering skills and resources that could benefit the school. Parents can add a valuable perspective in planning and setting policy as well. If this means the school staff has to take the time to explain jargon and procedures, itís worth it in the long run.

While she has found that most parents get involved to improve conditions for their own children, Takimoto says they usually end up becoming advocates for all children.
No one group can tackle all the challenges facing schools today. But she is confident we can make great strides if all parties learn to communicate positively and effectively.

What parents want, she says, is to feel they are being useful, that they are listened to, and that they can affect change. When our schools are able to create that kind of climate, she suspects that the parents fleeing our public schools for private institutions will return to the fold. Similarly, parents who have invested their time and effort in improving the schools are more likely to stay and work it out when they run into problems, rather than bailing out.


Aug. 28: First day of school in WCCUSD (Aug. 27 for El Cerrito High)

Sept. 8: West County Back to School Celebration, 10-4, Nicholl Park, Richmond

Run dates: 2001-08-24 - 2001-09-14

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