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Extra Credit



Tuesday, September 19, 2000; Page A10

The fall ritual has many names--back-to-school night, open house, parents night--but it usually follows the same script. Parents go to their child's school and listen while teachers try to explain in 10 minutes what students have been learning. But staff writer Jay Mathews found that some schools are changing the format in an effort to make the event more appealing.

* Get on the Bus

When Principal Jim Minetree arrived at Falling Creek Middle School five years ago, the Chesterfield County, Va., school had 1,100 students but rarely had more than 200 parents attending back-to-school night.

So Minetree and his staff began mailing back-to-school notices rather than sending them home at the bottom of student backpacks. Teachers called parents to invite them personally. And then, using $1,000 from Falling Creek's budget, Minetree rolled out the school's 18 yellow buses for the night, picking up parents at the same neighborhood stops their child used each day.

Last year, 850 parents showed up, and Minetree said he expects at least as many this year.

Parents love the bus trip, often taking along their youngest children, and they find it more convenient than piling into their car and looking for parking in the school's crowded neighborhood. And the bus drivers, Minetree reports, like the extra pay and enjoy having such well-behaved riders.

"It's wonderful for the parent to get the chance to see and meet the teachers," he said. "It gives them opportunity to size up the teachers; and if they have a good impression, that's half the battle."

* Two-Minute Drill

The affluent and education-conscious parents in Scarsdale, N.Y., rarely miss the annual open house at Scarsdale High School. But long ago, they decided that the standard tour of each of their children's classes did not satisfy their yearning for individual progress reports. So they have turned the evening into a scene as frantic as a clearance sale at Hecht's.

Instead of sitting with other parents listening to teachers speak in generalities for 15 minutes, each Scarsdale parent is promised two minutes alone in the classroom with each of the child's teachers. That comes to about 5,000 parent-teacher conferences, so many that it takes two evenings to get them all done. Parents come on the night reserved for their letter of the alphabet.

The minute they arrive, they dash about the halls signing up for conferences on long sheets maintained by parent volunteers sitting outside each room. The ironclad rule for volunteers is that if the parents are not present when their time comes, their name goes to the bottom of the list. Sometimes that brings loud arguments over whose turn it is, particularly toward the end of the long and often exhausting night.

The conferences are usually scheduled from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Parents receive maps of the school and are given the names and room numbers of the teachers. The school is somewhat spread out and has three floors in some areas, making the evening a physical as well as a logistical test.

"It is chaotic," Assistant Principal Corwith Hansen said, "but it provides each parent with a face-to-face private personal conversation with their kid's teacher. In my experience, most are willing to put up with the chaos in order to get that."

* Chocolate, Vanilla, Arithmetic

The staff at Highland Terrace Elementary School in New Haven, Ind., noticed the reluctance of some parents to drag themselves into a classroom on an otherwise pleasant late-summer evening. So they decided to turn back-to-school night into a party. To sweeten the occasion, they truck in large helpings of ice cream.

The evening starts early, about 5 p.m., and parents bring their children, or more truthfully, the children bring their parents. A local ice cream vendor brings in a trailer that dispenses ice cream sundaes and root-beer floats.

The classroom teachers, knowing the power of sugar and butterfat, give tokens in class that day to each student, which can be redeemed for free ice cream only if they coax their parents to attend. Once the parents show up, they are asked to pay 50 cents each for their treats to defray the costs of what their children are gorging themselves on.

Parents go to their child's rooms to hear what teachers are doing. One room serves as an information center, with tables for the PTA, clubs, Scouts and other groups to sign up new members and tell the parents what activities they plan for the year.

"We try to schedule our night as early as possible in the year, so neither the parent or the teacher should have much of an agenda when meeting other than getting to know each other," said Jim Hunt, the school's principal.

At 6:30 p.m., Hunt tells teachers to lock their classrooms and move their conversations with parents out to the ice cream courtyard so they can have a taste themselves. For another half-hour, parents and teachers chat in the evening air while the children scurry about the playground.

Many other Indiana schools have adopted the ice cream theme. "Both teachers and parents seem to enjoy the informal approach," Hunt said.

* Children in Charge

West Allegheny Middle School in Imperial, Pa., near the Pittsburgh airport, is in the third year of an innovative approach to informing parents what is happening in class. It is the students, not the teachers, who do most of the talking.

At the back-to-school night this year, parents will hear the four-teacher teams describe their approach to learning and have time to talk to subject specialists in separate corners of the room. But then, on a second back-to-school night, each child will sit with his or her parents in the corner of the classroom and tell them what the child has done well and not so well so far in school.

The students rehearse in class what they are going to say, whether it's the praise they got for their report on the Great Wall of China or their regret for not doing their science homework. They must speak softly, because other students are addressing their parents in the other three corners of the room. (Sessions are scheduled for four student-parent pairs at a time in the room.)

The school first experimented with the student-led conferences in sixth grade three years ago, and each year since has added a grade. The sixth-graders who first tried are eighth-graders this year and have become accustomed to explaining themselves in ways most U.S. parents have never heard.

"This provides the student an opportunity to take responsibility for his or her own learning," Principal Janet Walsh said, "and hone presentation skills."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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