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After Class, The Parent Becomes The Pupil

Island Creek Elementary teachers Terri Connell and Monique Jackson, standing, teach parents Joyce Wallen, left, Yin Mei Hueskes and Tom Ockenfels how to help their children with math.
Island Creek Elementary teachers Terri Connell and Monique Jackson, standing, teach parents Joyce Wallen, left, Yin Mei Hueskes and Tom Ockenfels how to help their children with math. (Photos By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 27, 2006

Her daughter Rachel is a kindergartner in Fairfax County. But that was Cindy Wade in the cafeteria at Island Creek Elementary School one recent evening for a mathematics lesson with Froot Loops and colored pasta.

Wade, a lawyer who's taking a break to raise her children, and other parents crowded around a table as teacher Brooke Harris encouraged them to have their children practice forming simple patterns at home by lining up bits of pasta or cereal.

"I have a question that might seem stupid," Wade said. "What do the patterns teach them?" After insisting that there are no such questions, Harris replied that identifying patterns is an important early step in developing logical reasoning skills.

Seminars such as the one at Island Creek are multiplying as schools call on parents to reinforce what children learn in the classroom. Seeking every possible edge to improve standardized test scores used to rate their schools, many educators say it's no longer enough to encourage parents to read with their children or make sure homework is finished.

A growing number of Washington area schools are adding math or reading nights or taking other steps to introduce parents to the latest teaching strategies. Montgomery County schools recently hosted Saturday literacy workshops attended by more than 500 parents, and the system is seeking to help schools replicate those programs.

Some schools have novel approaches. At Fairfax's Terraset Elementary School, parents formed a club to discuss recommended books for children and other reading tips.

"Every interaction we have with parents, we want to show them what their child needs and say, 'This is what you can do to help,' " said Sharon Aldredge, principal of Woodley Hills Elementary School in Fairfax, which is planning a "lunch 'n' learn" math and reading session for parents. "It's changed a lot since all of us were in elementary school. The expectations are high, and the pace has increased."

Penelope M. Earley, director of the Center for Education Policy at George Mason University, said research shows that students perform better if parents are involved in their studies. And she said schools are working harder to give parents detailed guidance on how to help.

"With all the accountability demands, it's necessary to involve parents in more specific ways," Earley said. "I think schools are being more deliberate."

Mark Muldowney, a fifth-grade teacher at Loudoun County's Round Hill Elementary School, recently took part in the school's first parent literacy workshop. He put it this way: "We can't do it ourselves."

One evening this year, Muldowney taught parents while their children enjoyed a movie in the school's gymnasium. The adults in his classroom learned about the "four square" -- an organizational technique similar to an old-fashioned outline. Moms and dads filled out a sheet they could use for essays on their favorite food.

Debbie Barr, whose daughter Jenna is a third-grader at Round Hill, said the workshop was the first time she'd heard of such squares. "We didn't have them when I was in school," Barr said. "Now when my daughter comes home from school, I know what she's talking about. It helps me be able to help her."

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