A new school year can mean anxious moments for students and parents. Tammie Love understands that anxiety. She's the mother of elementary school-age twins and she was never all that enthusiastic about school herself.
But this fall Love is so enthusiastic about the new school year that she sounds like a cheerleader for the U.S. Department of Education. The 37-year-old mother didn't come by her positive attitude naturally. She developed it a few years ago, by getting involved – really involved -- in her twins' education.
"Schools are wonderful. It's been very motivational for me. I go to other schools and say, 'Oh sure, you can have parent involvement.'" Love said.
Parents are getting more and more involved in schools and doing more than baking peanut butter cookies for the PTA fund-raisers. Many of today's parents are learning to be advocates for their children on many levels, "not just when they're invited," said Annie Freel, a program director at North Central Regional Educational Laboratory outside Chicago.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization is supported by a variety of sources, but funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Education. The organization's charge: turn educational research into practical tools and resources for parents and educators. The organization helps guide schools and parent groups toward improving parent participation.
Love is a graduate of training sponsored by the education lab that changed her from a passive parent into a participant. But Love said her attitude adjustment didn't happen overnight.
It started in 1995, when the single mother moved to a new neighborhood and enrolled her twin kindergartners, Katrina and Kevin, in a new school. Each day on the way to school, they faced a busy street that didn't have school crossing guards but did have gangs on each corner. The cars that didn't whiz by at a dangerous rate of speed cruised slowly, soliciting the neighborhood prostitutes.
It was not an ideal learning atmosphere for Love's children and the other students at Funston Elementary School in Chicago. "Sometimes the kids wouldn't get out on time, because there was gunfire in the neighborhood and they'd hold the kids until things calmed down," Love said.
One day Love walked into the school office and offered to volunteer. "When we drop our kids off at school, we don't know what happens to them. So this was a way to get in there and see what's going on," she said.
But instead of a warm reception, Love said the office staff was smug and discouraging. They pointed out a multistep process she'd have to follow in order to qualify to be a volunteer at the school. "I was very upset and disappointed and totally turned off from the whole experience," Love said. "I went home and vowed never to return again."
But that negative experience was turned around later by a flier her children brought home that caught Love's eye. It invited parents to a meeting to learn more about their neighborhood and their school.
That meeting was the beginning of a life-altering turnaround for Love and many other parents at the elementary school in Chicago. It began their plunge into a new kind of parent involvement.
Leaving bake sales and bulletin board designs in the dust, these parents would eventually create a school governing board, a safety patrol and the Funston Community Center.
Love recalls that first meeting of parents, where she was the only African American in a room full of strangers. "Even though I couldn't understand their Spanish, hearing them speak and seeing their expressions I knew they felt what I felt," Love said. "We cried together and laughed together from the first day."
Then they got busy.
The meeting was called by the neighborhood association and a nonprofit organization that works with parents in schools, called Community Organizing and Family Issues.
The parents committed to training that would teach them how to be more involved, rather than intimidated by or apathetic about the school. First they learned how to take care of themselves, so they could build the self-esteem needed to participate in the education system. "Then we set longer and bigger goals for ourselves -- bettering our education, learning how to drive, finishing high school, learning English," Love recalled.
Eventually the parents formed a local school council that monitored the school administration's performance and adherence to curriculum. They wanted to extend educational services into the neighborhood, so they learned how to put together a community center.
For two years, the parents surveyed the 600 people in the school neighborhood and found out what resources were already available, such as job opportunities and adult education classes.
"After finding out the resources, we wanted to know what the people would like to see here, and where they thought was safe," Love said. "The school was the No. 1 safe place."
In 1996 the parents opened the Funston Community Center, housed at the Funston Elementary School. Open until 9 p.m., it offered adult literacy classes, homework tutoring help for students and recreation programs for children and adults.
The community center was started with seed money from the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory: Today's top priority is finding sustainable funding, perhaps through the Illinois Legislature.
Her children never were very thrilled about their mother being around the school each day, Love admits, but her presence did make a difference. "They study more, study harder and pay more attention, because they know when they get home there will be questions," Love said.
Parent involvement today comes in many different shapes and forms. And it doesn't always mean having the parent directly in the classroom. Sometimes just having the parent in the school building makes a difference.
Starla Jewell-Kelly is the executive director of the National Community Education Association. Her organization of 1,500 active members operates and promotes lifelong learning programs that are often taught after hours in schools.
"The idea is for kids to see their parents involved and concerned about their education," Jewell-Kelly said. "Sometimes that can be nothing more than seeing mom or dad at the school."
Member groups of Jewell-Kelly's organization offer a variety of parent-related classes ranging from preteen behavior to basic school operations. "It's like Education 101. Here's the principal and teacher, and here's how the school is set up," Jewell-Kelly said.
Jewell-Kelly's group's members also do leadership training for parents, teaching them how to work with a committee. Leading a meeting and working with others are skills parents need in order to feel comfortable when approaching the hallowed halls of academia, even when those halls are in an elementary school.
Are these parent programs always successful? "It depends upon the leadership in the district, what their commitment is to parent involvement," Jewell-Kelly said. "If it's a highly involved district, they'll work the district so it's family-friendly."
Freel agrees that involving parents in schools is a process that must be tailored to each situation. "One of the challenging things about parent involvement is there's no one-size-fits-all formula. What works in one school might not work in another," Freel said.
This fall, Love is putting her training and self-confidence to work in a new school and a new neighborhood. "I'm excited about that. I know how to take steps to find out what's going on now," Love said.