Back to School -- for Parents

Del. Gerron S. Levi meets with parents, educators and other community members at Capital Christian Fellowship Church in Lanham to discuss improving parental involvement in Prince George's schools.
Del. Gerron S. Levi meets with parents, educators and other community members at Capital Christian Fellowship Church in Lanham to discuss improving parental involvement in Prince George's schools. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 6, 2007

Gerron S. Levi unrolled a crinkled map of Prince George's County and attached it to the wall of the church meeting room. Her flock was small but earnest: churchgoing folk, businesspeople, three young men huddled around the table.

Levi, an energetic state delegate from Woodmore, explained that each dot on the map was a school -- there were more than 80 -- that has failed to meet the testing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law. The dots were pink, purple, aqua, yellow and blue, representing how many years the schools have been under federally mandated improvement regimens. This means the school gets extra assistance, and schools that continue to fail can be forced to dismiss staff or give up control to the state.

Most of the dots, a crescent representing thousands of children, lay inside the Capital Beltway, just east of the District, amid the county's poorest communities. Gethsemane United Methodist Church in Capitol Heights, where Levi, a first-term Democrat, met with the dozen attendees, is within roughly a mile of three schools highlighted on the map.

"You have a problem school right here in your neighborhood," Levi said. "Is there some way we can work together?"

Normally, the people of Prince George's would be eager to help. A study by the Corporation for National and Community Service found volunteering rates among Prince George's residents far above national and state averages, and a 2003 study ranked the county in the top five jurisdictions in the United States for charitable giving.

But at the school level, the picture differs. Parent-teacher associations, the traditional backbone of parental involvement, have been especially troubled. The county's PTA council had its charter revoked for the second time in seven years in June, for reasons the Maryland PTA has refused to disclose. Local PTA units have continued to function, but at the beginning of the past school year, almost 40 schools out of more than 200 in the county did not have PTAs. Although some schools have involved, active, independent parents' groups, many others have languished.

Levi has made it her mission to get more people involved in Prince George's education. She is not alone in trying to mobilize community support for the school system. Glenn F. Ivey (D), the Prince George's state's attorney, started a program to mentor students at Fairmont Heights High School and is recruiting volunteers to help elementary school students learn to read. John E. Deasy, the Prince George's school superintendent, has hired parent liaisons at each school to help parents navigate the system and vowed to open PTAs in every school. The three agree that it's critical to galvanize public support for the schools to improve the county's performance on tests and other measures of achievement.

But there is a long way to go. "Parental involvement is uneven," Deasy said in a recent interview. Statistics tracking parent and community participation at PTA meetings and school functions showed an improving trend, Deasy said. But other, well-meaning initiatives have run into legal and logistical hurdles. Deasy has been criticized for imposing what he intended to be a stricter, and safer, policy of background checks that some parents say discourages volunteers. In other cases, transportation, cost, and a lack of time and participation have hindered programs.

National studies show that parental and community involvement alone cannot turn around a school system. That requires an effective corps of teachers, principals and other leaders. A study by the National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools, a research group in Texas, noted that school systems with highly involved teachers and parents can expect higher test scores and better behavior.

Locally, the impact of noninvolvement is clear. One of Deasy's cornerstone initiatives, an after-school program to help at-risk students pass the Maryland High School Assessment test in math, ran head-on into the problem of participation. Of the more than 2,500 students eligible to enroll, only half did so. Of that group, only 50 percent actually attended, and even fewer passed the test, which is a graduation requirement.

Deasy said he was most frustrated by the parental response to a new state vaccination requirement. Despite numerous attempts to get the word out, free clinics offering the shots and a campaign of door-to-door visits, more than 800 students still hadn't met the requirement in late March, three months after the rule went into effect.

A listing of obstacles to parental involvement began bubbling forth as soon as Levi had addressed the participants in the little church room.

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