A BIGGER ROLE FOR PARENTS Giving mom and dad a choice of schools is only one of many new programs to pull parents into the education process. The main beneficiaries: kids.
By Susan Caminiti REPORTER ASSOCIATE Stephanie Losee

(FORTUNE Magazine) – EDUCATION EXPERTS, hardly a conforming lot, tend to agree on one thing -- the best way to turn out smarter students is for their parents and teachers to work together. Says Bettye Caldwell, a professor of education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock: ''Study after study has shown that a parent's involvement in education is a powerful predictor of how that child is going to do in school.'' Fine. But how do you bring parents and teachers together, particularly since each side has long blamed the other for the academic decline of American students? Teachers complain that parents don't care and won't spend time at home reinforcing what is taught in class. Parents charge that teachers don't take them seriously. Caught somewhere in the middle are the children, while on the sidelines, business and community leaders want to encourage the primary players -- and improve education -- but often don't know how. Despite these conflicts, ambitious programs to include parents in the education system are springing up all over the country. Some are successful; some have run into trouble; others are too new to judge. But all are striving toward the same goal: better students. Throughout its 25-year history, Head Start, the successful federal preschool program for low-income families, has emphasized the role of parents, encouraging them to act as assistant teachers, among other things. (See following story.) Now an innovative program in Missouri called Parents as Teachers (PAT) is getting mothers and fathers involved even before a child is born. Hired by the local school system, the program's parent educators -- all with a background in early childhood education -- visit families in their homes to help interpret the baby's different developmental stages and explain how the behavior may affect later learning. Says Edward Zigler, professor of psychology at Yale University: ''Twenty-five years ago we all thought children were just little blobs until they were a year old. Now we know that children begin to learn immediately after birth. That means parents have to be thought of as educators from day one.''

Passed by the state legislature in 1984, PAT is mandated in all 543 Missouri school districts; families sign up only if they want to. Nearly 1,500 parent ( educators pay monthly house calls on 53,000 families. The program is available from the third trimester of pregnancy (discussions at that stage include how the baby will affect the family) until the child is 3. Mildred Winter, director of PAT, says the participants range from poor, inner-city, single- parent homes to two-parent, two-income, suburban families. Funding from the state board of education is $11 million for the current school year, $170 per child. CAROLYN FINAZZO, 36, the mother of Travis, 10, Mark, 7, and 1-year-old Marissa, spends an hour in her St. Louis home each month with parent-educator Joy Rouse. Says Carolyn: ''All of the books I've read are written for a much more general audience, but Joy zeros in on exactly what phase Marissa is going through, and we can talk about it.'' So far PAT has received high marks. A study released in March shows that children who took part in the pilot program in the early 1980s were ahead of other students at the end of first grade in such areas as reading, math, language arts, spelling, and social development. Rouse, a former first-grade teacher who has three sons, has been with the program for five years and is convinced that home visits are the key to its success. ''I always tell parents that if you turn off learning at home, it's hard for a teacher to turn it back on in the classroom.'' The PAT idea so impressed US West that the Denver telecommunications company recently announced it will be giving $10 million over the next three years to fund similar early-development and parenting programs in the 14 states where it provides local phone service. Says CEO Jack McAllister: ''In education, as in business, trying to fix things is more expensive than getting them right in the first place.'' Missouri Senator Christopher Bond wants to take the program national. In March he introduced a bill that would provide $100 million in federal funding over the next five years to states that want to set up PAT programs. A vote isn't expected until summer. A state program in New Jersey is also trying to close the parent-teacher gap. In 1988 the department of education asked schools throughout the state to write detailed plans explaining how they hoped to increase parents' involvement in their children's education. Last year it selected 29 schools as improvement sites in its Partners in Learning program -- many of them serving the state's most economically disadvantaged students. The schools are eligible for $10,000 for each of the two years they are involved in the project. Here's how the program works at the Mary J. Donohoe Elementary School in Bayonne. Last spring principal Patricia McGeehan sent out a survey asking parents why more of them didn't come to school meetings. She discovered that many families in the predominantly low-income community were headed by single parents who worked or couldn't find babysitters. Other parents indicated that they felt intimidated at the school, embarrassed by their own lack of education or their poor English skills. Says McGeehan: ''I sent out a follow- up letter and said, 'If I come to you, will you talk to me?' '' The response was an overwhelming yes. With help from Bayonne's mayor, Dennis P. Collins, and the local housing authority, McGeehan renovated a housing project's community room, where she now holds meetings every other month. Attendance is up to around 60 parents per evening, compared with the five or so who used to come to the school. Many of them bring their toddlers -- McGeehan supplies the babysitters. Says she: ''These parents feel comfortable in their own place, and they really participate.'' Like Missouri's PAT program, Partners in Learning seems to be off to a good start. While educators stress that there is no right way to get parents and teachers working as a team, some efforts have proved easier to implement than others. What follows is a status report on some of the country's other ambitious programs.

ROCHESTER, NEW YORK. Three years ago, Rochester's business community backed a sweeping overhaul of the public school system, an effort that involved the entire community -- parents, teachers, and local employers. As part of the restructuring, teachers signed a new contract giving them a 40% pay raise over three years. Starting salaries jumped to $29,000, among the highest in the nation, and some senior teachers' salaries came close to $70,000. In return for those heftier paychecks, the teachers' new contracts called for more contact with parents -- loosely defined as home-based guidance. That's where the confusion began. Teachers took the vague language to mean home-based visits. They complained, saying the program amounted to social work. ''A lot of these goals weren't made clear from the beginning,'' says William A. Johnson, president of the Rochester Urban League. ''Home guidance doesn't mean that teachers had to go to kids' homes. This could have been done by phone or letter, any way -- just to get parents and teachers talking.'' The school district has since given teachers more flexibility in determining how best to achieve this rapport. In an effort to lower the city's 28% dropout rate, Brainpower, a group that coordinates local business initiatives to improve education, started an annual Hall of Fame in March. Sponsored by Eastman Kodak, Rochester's largest employer, the program each year will select eight former public school students who were once borderline themselves and who nevertheless went on to graduation and successful careers. The idea is for the honorees to convince troubled students that they too can have a bright future -- if they stay in school. One Hall of Famer: singer William Warfield, who has performed on Broadway and in opera. At the request of the school district, the National Center on Education and the Economy also spent the past four months polling local businesses, community groups, and universities, asking them to explain -- in detail -- what young people need to know either to enter the work force or to go to college. The goal is to provide the board of education with specific information so it can set systemwide standards. Kodak donated $200,000 for the survey. All these projects may be worthy, says the Urban League's Johnson, but he thinks that none has really made much impact. Dropout rates in Rochester are rising, according to the latest school district figures. ''Most of the parents and kids that the programs are directed to won't tune in,'' says Johnson. Counters Kodak's President Kay Whitmore, an enthusiastic backer of reform: ''It took 20 years to make this mess and fixing it isn't going to happen overnight. The worst thing that could happen is for people to lose patience with what we're trying to do.''

CHICAGO. Fed up with a depressing 41% dropout rate and SAT scores at the bottom of the national heap, Chicago residents demanded two years ago that state officials completely overhaul their school system. Legislators presented the solution last fall: a revolutionary election process that gives parents six of the 11 seats on the councils of all 542 city schools. The other five seats are held by the principal and two teachers of each school, as well as two community members. The councils have the authority to hire and fire principals, work on the budget, and help design the curriculum. Such radical power shifts leave a lot of people quaking, particularly as members of the new councils try to establish what their roles should be. Elena Duran, the mother of four sons and a council member at the predominantly Hispanic Eli Whitney Elementary School, feels frustrated by her lack of training. Says she: ''Two weeks after we were elected, we were asked to make decisions on whether to renew principals' contracts. That's not something you take lightly.'' So far, councils have not renewed the contracts of 50 principals; four of the cases are the subject of highly emotional public debate. Management skills can minimize the friction and help the council concept work. Harris Bankcorp not only encourages its Chicago employees to run for school council -- by giving them time off with pay -- it also offers training for those who are elected. IBM sponsored three-day sessions in team role playing and communications theory for new council members. Says Weldon Beverly, the principal of Hyde Park Career Academy and one of the participants: ''I was impressed. It helped our parents' council function as a group. That's important because if we break down into two camps, everything is more difficult.''

THE CHOICE OPTION. Perhaps no recent issue in education has stirred greater controversy than the idea of choice, a school reform that assigns students to public schools not by where they live or busing plans, but by where their parents decide to send them. Choice is currently available on a district level in 43 states, and is going statewide in eight. Taking the process a step further, Wisconsin has a pilot project in Milwaukee, in which parents of about 950 students can include private nonsectarian schools among their educational options. Supporters see choice as a great way for parents to get involved. In order to select among schools, they need to evaluate course work, class size, test scores, and extracurricular activities, among many other things. Besides, says Joe Nathan, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, ''some working parents are looking at choice as a way of letting them send their kids to schools that are near where they work.'' In St. Paul, for example, parents who work downtown can send their children to kindergarten in an office building. Advocates of choice, who include President Bush, also say the system will prove an example of free-market principles at work. The best public schools will attract students -- and tax dollars -- and flourish; the inferior ones will either improve or close. Says Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson: ''Anytime you have a monopoly, you have a potential for stagnation, and a number of schools have become stagnant.'' CRITICS, many of whom are school administrators, claim choice makes racial and class divisions among schools worse. Says Gary Marx, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators: ''Choice is a political horse to ride. It gives the illusion of action but it is dangerous to hold it up as a panacea for the problems we have in schools today. There are families who are just scraping by. If they don't have a car to get to their child's school meeting across town, or need to hire babysitter, how will they do it?'' No choice program will work everywhere. The most effective will include a clear statement of the school's goals and guidelines and will be closely monitored by the state to make sure the goals are realized. Just as important, parents must receive useful information and counseling to help them select the best program for their child. Says Nathan: ''This is a new responsibility for many parents, and some are a little scared. They want to make the right decision.'' Parental involvement in education is an ongoing process that starts the minute a child is born. While the new programs that promote more interaction between parents and the education system are far from perfect, they are essential to the turnaround of American schools. Says Yale's Zigler: ''Anything that builds continuity between home and school is wonderful for the child, because the payoff is so great.''

BOX: FACT

In Chicago, 46% of the public school teachers send their own children to private schools.

''Today one of six babies in the U.S. has a teenage mother. And of today's 3- year-olds, 60% will be raised by a single parent at some time before they are 18, and more than half of them will live in poverty.''