The principal peered at the boy's mother, wondering how to raise a troublesome issue across a language barrier without hurting the woman's feelings. "If you could just make sure Joaquin stays here the whole year," the principal said, "we could really get him caught up to grade level."
The interpreter at Arlington's Barcroft Elementary School repeated the words in Spanish. The woman nodded. Last year she had taken her son to Guatemala to see his sick grandmother. She promised that would not happen this year.
It was one of dozens of parent conferences that Barcroft Principal Miriam Hughey-Guy held in July and August, and she plans to meet individually this fall with the parents of the rest of the school's 550 students. Hughey-Guy had never before tried to do this, but she decided that having face-to-face talks with all parents would be the best way to enlist their help in turning the school into an academic success.
In principals' offices, on telephones and computer screens, and even in neighborhood cafes and restaurants, many school officials in the Washington area and across the country are taking aggressive new action to get parents more involved in their children's education.
As another school year begins, a growing number of area educators have concluded that the traditional ways of communicating with parents--the school newsletter and the annual parent-teacher conference--are not providing parents with enough information about what their children are being taught and how to buttress those lessons at home.
In Prince George's County, Bladensburg High School Principal Marvel L. Smith plans to have a "report card pickup party" this fall. Parents will be invited to stop by on a Saturday to get their first look at their children's grades and chat with school staff.
"We will have coffee and doughnuts, and they will be able to meet with the principal and teachers, not in a classroom setting but a casual affair," said Minnie Pearson, a ninth-grade parent who serves on the PTA executive committee.
In Fairfax County, teachers at two high schools, two middle schools and five elementary schools have been given individual voice mailboxes that parents can telephone at any time to learn the latest classroom activities, homework assignments and tips on reinforcing lessons at home.
In the District, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman for the first time invited more than 100 parent representatives to summertime leadership conferences attended by principals and administrators. They discussed the importance of making sure that parents know what is expected of their child and how to provide a time and place to study each day.
In Arlington, the parents of many third-graders this summer received math review materials and suggestions for summer trips to Civil War museums and battlefields that might stimulate children's interest in history.
Such efforts to increase parental involvement are intensifying in part because of the pressure on principals and teachers to boost student scores on new state achievement tests, education analysts say. Studies have shown that keeping parents informed and seeking their help, particularly in the early grades, raises reading scores and reduces the need for remedial work.
But the strategy probably will fail if parents believe that the school wants to communicate with them only on its own terms, specialists say. They advise principals and teachers to return parental calls promptly and to ensure that parents are made to feel welcome at school. Parents whose suggestions have been ignored, or whose requests for more information have been rebuffed, are less likely to respond to a principal's pleas to pay more attention to their child's learning.
"Family involvement is something that schools must decide they want to do as consistently and meaningfully as they want to do reading and mathematics," said Laurel A. Clark, a spokeswoman for the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University. "You have to have a whole program of parental involvement that is tied to your goals. Just because you have a PTA meeting doesn't mean your achievement and test scores will go up."
In a Washington Post poll conducted this spring, Washington area public high school teachers said many parents remain uninvolved. Of the 802 teachers surveyed, 61 percent said they had had contact with the parents of fewer than half their students, and 86 percent agreed that "most parents of underachieving students wait for their children to fail before they intervene."
For their part, parents generally applaud educators' efforts to keep them better informed, but they say the programs vary from school to school and from teacher to teacher.
Dawn Phillips, the outgoing PTA president at Swanson Middle School in Arlington, said she tried unsuccessfully to have Swanson adopt Williamsburg Middle School's system of weekly teacher reports about sixth-grade school assignments. "They opted not to because it would take too much time from teaching and planning," she said, although her own child's teacher agreed to do it for her.
Arlington schools spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said that preparing such a report every week "is a significant amount of work . . . which may not be possible in every case."
The increased contact between parents and school personnel has been fostered in part by computer technology. The voice-mail system being introduced in the nine Fairfax schools, with financial backing from IBM Corp., Mobil Corp. and Price Waterhouse Coopers LLP, is in use in about 1,000 schools nationwide. A survey of those schools found that the system had increased the number of parent-teacher contacts by 500 percent and that half the parents were checking the voice mail every day.
Many schools now post homework assignments on their Web pages. The Edison-Friendship Public Charter School in the District went a step further this year, giving a home computer to the family of every third-, fourth- and fifth-grader and training parents and students how to use them both for schoolwork and communication with the school.
In Alexandria, the new principal at Mount Vernon Elementary School, Lulu Lopez, is taking a more low-tech approach. She has spent several days this summer strolling through the community, particularly up and down the commercial district of Mount Vernon Avenue.
"I go into restaurants and the open-air market, places where I know I will find parents," she said. "I want to provide them with contact that is just not another flier or homework assignment."
Karen Mapp, a program director at the Institute for Responsive Education at Northeastern University, said parents at a successful elementary school in Boston told her they were willing to stay in contact because of the attitude of school staff.
"The secretary is always friendly and helpful when you call," one parent told Mapp. Another parent said that the principal knew the names of all the children and parents and that the janitor was in the habit of singing congratulations to any student or parent who had a birthday.
When Hughey-Guy meets with parents at Barcroft Elementary, she gives them information on their child's progress and invites them to join her Sixty Minutes Club, a program encouraging a full hour of schoolwork soon after children arrive home.
The day Kelly Kremposky came in to talk about her sons Michael, 8, and Nicholas, 5, Kremposky told the principal that Michael usually spends no more than 20 minutes on homework. "Well, it's going to take longer next year," Hughey-Guy said. "If he just takes 20 minutes for his work, he should use the rest of the hour to read."
Hughey-Guy said her goal is to have met separately with each student's family by the time this fall's parent-teacher conferences are over.
"So much information is going home about testing and our need to move children forward," Hughey-Guy said. "If I can explain this to a parent and put it on a personal basis, then they can feel comfortable and know they can always ask me about anything."
CAPTION: Barcroft Principal Miriam Hughey-Guy, right, shares a smile with parent Kelly Kremposky.
CAPTION: Miriam Hughey-Guy, principal at Arlington's Barcroft Elementary School, discusses her plans with Kelly Kremposky, who has two sons at the school.