Patty Morin Fitzgerald

Content Specialist

A is for advocate: parents help their kids get the most out of school

Published in The Providence Journal on February 8, 1995.

Dianna Crocker was anxious when she approached Richmond Elementary School for the first time to register her son Matthew for kindergarten. It had been a long time since she had heard the click of her heels passing through school halls. She felt the stir of emotions from memories of her own childhood.

"You do get a little nervous. I don't want to feel like I'm still a kid and I can't speak up to the teacher," Crocker said. But she and her son's teacher "hit it right off," and after registration she stayed and asked questions and got a feel for the school and the classroom where her son would be spending so much time. "They like it when parents ask a lot of questions. They didn't push me out."

Unfortunately, many parents don't overcome the initial angst and speak up for their children.

"I don't think it's a role many parents associate with themselves," said Mary Anne Roll, president of the Rhode Island Parent-Teachers Association. Yet, "it's probably the most important role a parent can play."

Hectic work schedules and home lives are among the reasons "many parents are disconnected from the schools and (from) their children's learning," said Roll, and it's a big problem for the schools.

Parent involvement. "It's on everyone's agenda," she said. "The role of parents is there on every piece of legislation. The reality is nobody knows how to get it done.

"There's very little time at the end of the day, and with one-parent (families) it's more significant," said Roll. In addition, parents may have had their own poor experiences in school.

"They're intimidated by the building, let alone the people in it."

For parents like Dianna Crocker, who works in the home, the opportunity to make her presence felt is great. "I do my best to show up," she said. "Once a week I find out what they're up to. I just go in . . . I ask if (the teacher) needs help. They'll take the help. At open house they had six categories to sign up for. This week I'll read to the class."

But for those who work full time outside the home and have all they can do to manage a house, monitor homework and help their kids get organized, such interaction may be impossible. Are these parents at a disadvantage?

"Yes . . . Given the structure we have, yes," said Rosemarie K. Kraeger, without hesitation. The principal at Middletown's Linden School, winner of the prestigious Milkin Award for educators, a national prize for innovation, favors parent surveys to "get a beat" on issues such as the best time for conferences. And they should be longer than the typical 10 minutes, she said.

"Saturday morning might be the best time but teachers are not available because of contracts." Change "probably has to happen locally, with teachers' unions."

With questionnaires, schools could determine what's important to parents and beef up public relations to promote a "sense of welcome." And each district should have a written "parent policy" reflecting the importance of the school community. "It sets the tone," she said.

She had a good relationship with teachers when her children were in school, Kraeger recalled, but she "had to get in there if teaching styles weren't matching learning styles."

Translating the "buzz words" and jargon educators use, and giving teachers and parents the "people skills" necessary to feel comfortable with each other would go a long way toward making schools more accessible, she believes.

And she dismissed any suggestion there might not be enough time. "The staff and principal should make time to make the schools 'user friendly,'" she said. "We're working on it."

There are some good things happening, noted PTA president Roll. "There are efforts to include all parents regardless of language and cultural barriers in the decision-making process in the schools themselves," with parents sitting on committees charged with hiring teachers and principals and creating new programs and facilities.

"There really is a private school education in every school in the state. You just have to know how to access it for your child," said Roll.

ONE PARENT WHO has earned the respect of educators for her persistent advocacy for her children, and others like them, is Michele Keir of Warwick, whose two children attend Winman Junior High School and Toll Gate High School.

Although efforts to gain a special reading program in kindergarten for her eldest, an early reader, were unsuccessful, her dogged pursuit of challenging work for her children has had some solid results.

She joined the parent-teachers group, volunteered daily in the computer room at her children's school and helped start an after-school enrichment program. She hooked up with other parents with similar concerns and joined Warwick's Gifted Advisory Committee.

Keir has become known for testifying before the legislature on behalf of the gifted, and school committee members defer to her expertise, she said.

"Instead of being adversaries," she said, state education officials call her in to work with them.

"They used to choke on those words 'gifted and talented' and now they're bringing them up. . . . It's wonderful to see the message has gotten across."

Due partly to the efforts of Keir and the Gifted Advisory Committee, the state Department of Education held workshops last spring and fall for teachers, parents and administrators on how to create time to use techniques for the gifted for all students.

"It was really wonderful," Keir said. "The advocacy that I've worked hard for hasn't created dollars (in the budget) but it's sure done a lot of wonderful things."

On the flip side, a parent can become too involved, points out Coventry superintendent Ray Spear. A strong supporter of parent-teacher associations and a close relationship between school and home, he is less enthusiastic about a kind of individual advocacy he's seen in which "a person can't see beyond their own selfish interest."

Sometimes parents "lock in on a belief and they don't want to let loose," he said. "Recently, a parent thought their youngster was gifted and had a tough time accepting" that the student was being sufficiently challenged.

THERE APPEARS to be as wide a range of teacher attitudes as there are parent approaches. Keir cites a first-grade teacher who gave parents her home phone number because "she didn't want any child to go to sleep unhappy with something that happened in school," and another who humiliated students when she was approached about a problem.

While parents and educators agree the vindictive teacher is rare, the "intimidation factor" shouldn't be dismissed, said Dan Johnsen, formerly a teacher at the private Moses Brown School in Providence and now a newspaper copy editor and parent of two. "It's big," he said. After all, parents reason, their child "still has to be in the classroom with this teacher" after the conflict is exposed.

But you must start with the teacher, educators agree. Johnsen felt defensive when parents would bring problems first to the principal. "That's the wrong way to go about it . . . If you're having a problem with a friend, you talk to the friend about it."

As a teacher, "you're in a vulnerable position," he said. "Parents care so much about their kids and rightfully so, but they can misinterpret things," especially if they're relying on their child's version of events. "Try not to jump to judgments" before hearing the teacher out.

As a parent, Johnson takes the long view. "You have your good years and your bad years. You can't have the best teacher in the world every year." And if you have a personality conflict and you don't feel you're handling it particularly well, "bite your tongue and help your kid through it.”

But be aware if there's a specific change in your child's behavior.

When Michele Keir's son Ben was getting an unusual number of errors on his math papers, "I got scared. I was asking, 'What's happening here?'"

At an open house, she sat in his seat and noticed several possible sources of distraction, including close proximity to a window and next-door classroom, a behavior-problem child assigned to the next seat and glare on the blackboard. But when informed of Keir's findings, the teacher became defensive and the principal had to be brought in, she said. Ben's seat was moved and the problem abated. Keir got along again with the teacher "eventually" and her son had a great year.

"You need to talk to the teacher first," she warned. If you don't get results, you may need to go further for your child's sake, she adds.

But be as informed as possible, cautions Margaret J. Swann, reading teacher in West Warwick and another Milken Award winner. Working parents miss out on in-class involvement, but there are other ways they can participate, she pointed out, including PTAs and other night and weekend workshops and social events, if they're available. Any opportunity to become more familiar with the people and places involved can make a parent more relaxed when put into the school setting either by choice or necessity.

And as long as you respond positively when the teacher looks for support in dealing with your child, you needn't worry about your inability to spend time in the classroom, said Johnsen.

To Swann, advocacy is critical.

"There are times just being involved isn't enough. If any child needs extra support you feel they're just not getting or having problems with their homework, it's too much, too little . . . You need to address the issue with your child's teacher. I mean it in a positive way. Not going in and demanding but maybe sitting down and asking questions, explaining why you see this as a problem. . . . It doesn't have to be handled in a rude way." And don't be afraid to go back more than once to work something out, she adds.

But while it sounds straightforward, Swann admits that as a parent herself, she's still learning. And she has regrets that she didn't advocate more strongly for her son early on because she feared being seen as the "interfering teacher-parent." At any rate, she'd rather be on the teacher end of the equation, any day.

"I've found it much easier to be the teacher than the parent. . . . It's very difficult to sometimes listen to some problems your child is having. You're very concerned if they're struggling. It's very upsetting."

PTA PRESIDENT Roll is optimistic.

"Generally speaking, teachers recognize the importance of working with parents more effectively," she said, but "we have to get the message to parents that they're important."

She's interested in a "parent contract" used by some schools in other states to "recognize their commitment as well as their children's . . . You can call it advocacy or parents accepting responsibility."

And when she's not being school principal, Rosemarie Kraeger teaches a course at Salve Regina University in Newport on "home-school communication" for educators. Providence College and other local universities have similar offerings, she said. Kraeger learned how to collaborate with parents early on as part of her training as a special education teacher.

Classroom newsletters, calls and visits to homes, when possible, are some measures being explored to draw parents in at her school, Kraeger said. If workshops were offered on parent-teacher conferences, possibly by guidance counselors, "I think it would be a really good ice-breaker and give people a sense of: 'Here's what I'm going to do,'" she said.

In the meantime, there are parents like Dianna Crocker, who spread the word that conquering any discomfort the school environment presents is worth it. And she hasn't hit any roadblocks yet.

"I tell my friends, 'Go. Go. Don't feel intimidated, like you can't go in.' I say, 'Hey, I'm here to see how things are going.'"

Communication tips for parents

Letting your children's teachers know that you're on their team, available to help in whatever way you can, is a smart first step to a good relationship, parents and educators agree.

Stop by, call or send a note as early in the school year as possible before a teacher needs to contact you (that's usually bad news). Then, if problems arise, teachers know you and trust that you support their efforts and are not just being critical.

Here's more advice on meeting with teachers, formally or informally:

Tips for teachers