If Your Child Is Failing, You May Be Last to Know About It

Christine Baron, a high school English teacher in Orange County, is the co-author of "What Did You Learn in School Today?" Her column will appear the first Monday of each month. You can reach her at educ@latimes.com or (714) 966-4550

As new school terms approach, I always look back at the past year, resolving to hold on to what worked and avoid what didn't. Perfect examples of communication working and not working involve two former students--I'll call them Pat and Chris--both high school juniors.

Pat, a student in my honors English class, started off nicely with a wealth of supplies, a good attitude and lots of eye contact. Early in the second semester, however, things began to fall apart. Pat turned in a major paper a week late and didn't turn in the next one at all.

A progress report went out warning both Pat and his parents that a D was in the works. There was still time to regroup, but the downward spiral continued. Pat never talked to me about his spectacular slide, nor did the family, despite several grade indicators dutifully sent home.

The most depressing aspect of this affair was the phone call from Pat's mother in late May. She was concerned and said she "had no idea" the grades were so bad, since she could not recall having seen a progress report after the third-quarter grading period.

Had Pat gotten to the mailbox ahead of his mother? You bet. Furthermore, she had instructed Pat to talk to me about what could be done to improve that third-quarter grade, and of course she was dismayed to learn that that never happened.

In direct contrast was Chris, a boy in my college prep class who was flirting with an F by third quarter and also a master at report card interception. But the father, in this case, suspected something was up. He called the school, got the grade report and then went into action, calling me on his cell phone from the freeway.

Within days of the progress report, Chris had worked out a plan with me to prevent failing. Apparently Dad had said, "You talk to that teacher or you don't drive the car." Thanks to timely intervention, we were able to get Chris back on track and at least pass the course.

Both parents clearly cared about their children's school performance, but while Chris' Dad initiated action, Pat's mother was passive, waiting until it was too late to do anything.

There is a lesson for parents here, some guidelines to be followed to avoid the kind of academic surprises no parent wants.

First, don't kid yourself into believing that "if there's a problem, the school will let me know." That may be true in elementary school, but in the later grades it's unlikely to happen, not with five classes a day, each with 35 kids. High schools and junior highs will let you know how your child is doing when they realistically can, usually four times a year, via a report card. Progress reports are sometimes sent out before report cards, especially if a student is doing poorly. Once these reports are mailed, the school assumes the parents have received them.

Next, find out when report cards and progress reports are sent home. And while you're at it, find out if progress reports are sent for failing students only. If your student doesn't receive one, it could mean she's up for honor roll, or it could mean she's heading toward a D.

If a report does not arrive when it should, call the school. Someone in the guidance department, most likely your child's counselor, will have all current grade information and can give it to you over the phone.

Never assume that no news is good news. You should be able to find out about once a month how your child is doing. This way, problems can be addressed before they get out of hand. The school reports or examples of your child's work may be enough to assure you all is well. But if few indicators are forthcoming, you may need to resort to direct contact with the school.

For a routine check, do not call the teacher. Send a note with your child, or a grade check form you've created, giving the teacher awhile to respond. Call if you don't hear in a few days.

Some schools have a standardized form for students to hand in to their teachers, who initial it and note the student's progress and whether any assignments are missing. Again, check with the guidance counselor. Some students' parents have them use these weekly; other parents use them on an occasional basis. Knowing that they will be held accountable makes most students toe the line.

And speaking of accountability, back up your interest with rewards and discipline. There must be consequences for poor school performance if you want to see a grade turned around. Although it takes energy to follow up a warning with actual discipline, creating consequences gets results--as Chris' father clearly realized.

Last, if you ask your child to talk to the teacher, you need some verification this has occurred. It's not that kids don't honestly intend to talk to the teacher, but something always interferes. There will be any number of reasons why it didn't work out on a given day, from "My friends were waiting for me" to "The teacher looked busy," but at some point the time allotted for this has to run out.

Young people may be embarrassed or nervous to discuss academic problems with a teacher, but doing so is the first step toward taking responsibility for one's predicament. And it's much more effective for the student to do this than the parent.

As our children begin the coming school year, we as parents and teachers may need to help them along.

If left to their own devices, students can often dig themselves into a hole too deep for rescue. But being aware someone has slipped, and throwing a rope at opportune times, can prevent a disaster.

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