FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Kids got all worked up when they went back to school, but will their parents get worked up when they see the first report card? Well, today we continue our education series with the look at what happens when parents do and don't get involve in their kids educations.

To help out, we've got Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University; Pam Dickenson, a parent of two students at the KIPP Tech Valley School in Albany, New York; and Daniel Ceaser principal and math teacher at KIPP Tech Valley, and he taught Pam's oldest son last year.

Welcome folks.

Mr. DANIEL CEASER (Principal, KIPP Tech Valley Charter School): Welcome.

Ms. PAM DICKENSON (Parent): Hello.

Dr. JOYCE EPSTEIN (Director, Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships, Johns Hopkins University): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So Daniel, I want to start with you. How involved is your average parent in his or her child's education? Do you set certain expectations or demands?

Mr. CEASER: Our parents are very involved, and that really starts with us as a school. I mean, we set the expectation that it's a team effort. That at KIPP, it's both of student, parent and teacher responsibility to make sure that our kids are prepared to go on to high school and college, and it starts with us as a school setting the expectation that we're going to be proactive.

That means that before the school year starts, I or one of our team sits down and meets with our family members - usually in their homes - and lays out those expectations. And we find that, as a school, the more we put forth, the more our parents put forth. That, you know, if we show that we're willing to go the extra mile, then our parents will go the extra mile, and the kids will follow suit.

CHIDEYA: Now, in their home, you mean you make home visits? That's kind of like home doctors visits. It seems like very few parents expect home visits from anyone, let alone the principal.

Mr. CEASER: All the time. And, you know, it's great to be able to say to a student, you know, when I was sitting across the kitchen table from your mom last night, we were having a conversation about your math homework. You know, it's really powerful to be able to spur our kids. To see that, you know, if your principal needs to talk to your mom, your principal may just, you know, walk home with you and knock on your door. And our parents really appreciate that, too. I mean, if we want to make our school accessible and we expect our parents to be able to come to us, we should set the example by going to them.

CHIDEYA: So Pam how has this worked out for you? First of all, did you get one of these home visits? And secondly, how do you interact with your child's school?

Ms. DICKENSON: Well, yes, I've had a home visit when Neal(ph) first started -when he was in seventh grade, and they came to the home, which I was really shocked. And Dan, as a matter of fact, when he sat down, he went through what the school, you know, what they expected from him, what they expected from the parents and what the school's expectations were for, you know, everyone, and it works out really well.

We, you know, any time I need to speak to any teacher, any faculty member in the school, I'm able to do that. I can go in the school at any time, I can call at any time, and they're willing to talk to me about anything that I need to talk to about my children.

CHIDEYA: What do you like the most but also what do you find the most difficult about a situation like this? Because I'm sure you've got a lot of demands on your time. Do you ever just say, you know what, I just can't do everything they wish I would do whether it's, you know, sitting down with my kids to do the homework or volunteering. Do you ever reach a little point of saying enough is enough?

Ms. DICKENSON: No. I never - I'm a parent who's very involved with my children's education because, of course, if I'm not involved, then who else will be? If I don't show initiative, I don't show that I'm interested in their education, then why should anyone else be interested in their education? So they don't ask too much, in my opinion, and I just believe that, you know, the community works, you know, the triangle, the teacher, parent and the student triangle works for us.

CHIDEYA: Joyce, when you hear a story like this, it sounds like a best case scenario. What do you think goes on in a lot of other cases? And if there are cases where parents are disconnected, how can schools and families work together to change that dynamic?

Dr. EPSTEIN: Well, your guests today are stellar guests. The principal and parent are really doing what we know in our studies over the last 20 years show that when school staff and families are so responsive and understand that this has to be kind of a systematic process, things work for everybody. So they both are stellar.

What we've learned is that any school, whether it is public or private, whether it is huge or relatively selective and small, can have these kinds of programs by structuring a kind of teamwork the way that Dan mentioned, that teams are important in this work.

And we have figured out ways that any school - any elementary, middle and high school can have what we call an action team for partnerships linked to their school improvement plans, which most public schools across the country now require for the teachers to focus on important goals with students.

And what we have figured out and helped many, many schools in our national network of partnership schools to do is organize a teamwork linked to the school improvement plan so that families are engaged and involved in ways that will matter for children's success. So, really, it is not necessarily unique for this to be possible.

What is unusual, really, is for a whole district to have all of its schools well organized so that all families feel connected regardless of what grade level their children are enrolled in. And that's what we work on with schools and districts across the country.

CHIDEYA: Now, Joyce, say that you're someone who has no kids, you move to a town or a city where you don't - you're not particularly connected to any families with school-aged children, how does it affect your life that the parents are communicating with the schools? Does it affect your life at all if you're not someone who's directly involved with raising kids?

Dr. EPSTEIN: Well, it definitely does. You know, there's an old story that many community members have no children in the public schools in particular, but they're grandparents have children, they're aunts and uncles have children, they are part-time employers of children at the high school level, and all communities are affected by the quality of their public schools and how the families are strengthened to support the children in academics, in behavior, in attendance, and in the good works that youngsters actually can do as members of their own community.

We have a framework of six types of involvement: parenting, communicating volunteering, learning at home, which includes homework - which your guest mentioned - decision making such as the PTO or PTA, and collaborating with the community because there are wonderful resources for children, for families, and for the schools in all communities.

CHIDEYA: Well, in case you are just tuning in, I want to reintroduce our topic and our guests.

This is NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

And we are talking about parents getting involved in their kid's education. It's part of our month-long series on education.

Just talking to Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University. We've also got Pam Dickenson, a parent of two students at the KIPP Tech Valley School in Albany, New York; and Daniel Ceaser, principal and math teacher at KIPP Tech Valley.

So I'm going to go back to you, Pam. What do you think has improved the most in your life as a parent? Were there things that you assumed when you - your kids first started going to school that now you think differently about, and how did you grow and change?

Ms. DICKENSON: Well, we - well, the school has done so much for my children in terms of building self-confidence, and that's something that we never had in the beginning. And, of course, you don't assume that that's going to happen, you know, in the school.

As far as changes are concerned, I just like the fact that I have that connection with the school community, and my children has this connection with the school community, and we can talk and we can rely on them to make sure that the kids have what they need to be successful students.

CHIDEYA: Give me an example of what an evening is like in your home. So, your kids get home at what time? You get home at what time?

Ms. DICKENSON: Well, we get home - we travel a half hour to get to the school because, of course, because of the district that we live on, there was no bus provided because we live outside of the district. So we get - the school ends at 5 o'clock. We get home roughly about 5:30, quarter to six.

Once - all my children get home, they're required - as I cook dinner, they're required to do homework. If they need any help, I try to help them. If they need help that I can't help them with, they can call the school. They can call any teacher to get help with their homework if, you know, I'm unable to help them with whatever they need help in.

So they do their homework and then once their homework is done, then they're required to read and then they can, you know, for at least 15 to 20 minutes, you know, in the evening. And then they can go, they can play, you know, outside with their friends or, you know, do - play some games or go on the computer or watch a little bit of television. And then they go to bed and get ready for the next day because their day is, you know, it's a very early day for them.

CHIDEYA: And Daniel, your schools, the KIPP schools, which are part of a network of schools, tend to have a longer school day. Is that something that allows you to create a structure that is easier for the kids to take home with them? Is that part of - one of your deliberate decisions about how you teach?

Mr. CEASER: Hopefully, I mean, it certainly helps. I mean, the more time that we can be reinforcing our educational objectives and our character objectives, you know, the better chance our kids have internalizing them and staying on the right path.

But, you know, high expectations doesn't, you know, there's no time limit or a necessary amount of time. I mean, we - you know, it's that we use our time well and that, you know, we set the expectation bar high for kids but our family as well to be able to have a longer school day, a longer school year. It's a huge benefit for our kids. And I think it's a huge benefit for our families, you know. We can - I can say hi to Pam if she - when she's picking up her children, you know, at the end of the day. And that's great to be able to do that.

So I think it's a huge benefit, but, you know, there are successful schools that don't run as late as ours and I'm sure there are successful schools that have longer days as well. It's really about the expectation.

CHIDEYA: Well, Dan, I want to ask you something. And, Joyce, I want to ask you the same question. Just a very practical tip on what to do if you're a teacher in a confrontation. I have family and friends who are teachers and sometimes if a parent comes in for a conference about a difficult child, there have been scenarios where the parent will then start beating the kid in front of the teacher. There are scenarios where the parent will then go off on the teacher. What do you when you're in a worst-case scenario? Daniel first.

Mr. CEASER: I think it's important that, you know, we start from the common ground. Every parent wants their child to be successful. We want every one of our students to be successful. So it's not about me and it's not about the parent across the table from me. It's about our kids and the kids that we're talking about. And we start out looking at or this is our end goal and this is what we want to see from the young men and young ladies sitting with us. And that's a very powerful place to start.

And also something as, you know, as simple as starting with the positive. And we don't - our philosophy is there's no such thing as good kids or bad kids, there's good choices and bad choices. And we all make good choices, and we all make bad choices every day. And, you know, to be able to say, to be able to start from really a positive perspective and start with the positive, focusing on our kids. You know, I think you can create a common set of expectations and a common language that really helps push the conversation in the right direction.

CHIDEYA: Well, Joyce, what if things just really break down? How do you advise teachers, specifically, or administrators to deal with situations that get out of hand?

Dr. EPSTEIN: Well, again, our work is really to present such things from happening and it isn't so hard to do. So when your listeners are interested in building programs that sent those positive goals from the beginning of the school year before anybody's in difficulty, creating the face-to-face connections of family and teacher so that should a problem arise there is a common goal of solving the problem.

We find that many schools that don't plan such programs only call parents when there are difficulties and that doesn't work. So it is the full years and full program of partnerships that matter. And I certainly would invite your listeners to visit our Web site, www.partnershipschools.org, because their district and their schools can join our network to get some help so that we don't end up in those really trying situations.

CHIDEYA: What was the most practical advice anyone ever gave you in trying to learn more about bringing parents together with teachers and communities?

Dr. EPSTEIN: Are you talking to me?

CHIDEYA: Mm-hmm.

Dr. EPSTEIN: I think the notion is meet and talk first so that your face-to-face connections are a groundwork on which you can then build problem solving. You know, children get into difficulties. Schools are a human enterprise. There will be problems. But we solve them by having those kinds of common goals and the recognition that teachers have a role to play and parents have an important role to play in their children's lives and education.

But every parent in America is not expected to figure all of this out on their own every single year their child is in school. The school must help. As your guests have really illustrated, not just in special schools like KIPP - which are wonderful places - but in wonderful public schools that can do very much the same thing under different structures.

So we know that the very most important thing any parent can do is talk to their own child - talk about school, talk about learning, talk about the future because youngsters need to know that their parents think education is important and that finishing school is important and doing your best is important. So this all starts with communication, first, between parent and child, parent and teacher, and then the schools' program.

CHIDEYA: The KIPPs schools are public. I just wanted to point out that they are charter schools and they do have some different rules. Pam, finally, when you think about this, what do you pass on to your friends who may have kids at other public or private schools?

Ms. DICKENSON: Well, as you said the charter schools, which are public schools of choice, and what I do is I pass them to my friends that their - it's a choice. You can send your child to a school where the environment is a little safer, a little more self contained, where people or the teachers and the faculty are very interested in what's going on with their child in trying to ensure that they get the best education that they possibly can as long as what you desire and your child's desires. And I also pass along that, you know, the individual attention is so great. And it's good for, you know, the children.

CHIDEYA: And I'm sure the individual attention that your kids get from you is some of the most important. And I want to thank all of you for joining us.

Mr. CEASER: Thank you very much.

Dr. EPSTEIN: You're welcome.

CHIDEYA: Pam Dickenson is a parent of two students at KIPP Tech Valley School in Albany, New York. Daniel Ceaser is principal and math teacher at KIPP Tech Valley. And Joyce Epstein is director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University.

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