Clueless, With Teen? Take a Page From Team of Parents


The pressures of starting high school are about to let up considerably--at least for some parents.

Instead of having to search through stacks of loose papers in their teens' backpacks, parents of high school freshmen in the Capistrano Unified School District will be presented with a compact guide to navigating high school.

The guide, which will be distributed during freshman registration in late August, was dreamed up by a coalition of parents in the south Orange County district as a way to help parents negotiate obstacles and keep them informed when their teenagers don't.

"It's so difficult to have families all sit down to dinner and talk about what's going on," said Suzy Elliot, a trustee on the Capistrano Unified school board. "It's a big task for parents to keep on top of everything."

Covering everything from graduation requirements to social events, problem resolution to advanced-placement class grades, the book covers the policies and culture of the 44,000-student district.

"It's something that any district needs," said Peggy Swanson, director of instructional services for Capistrano Unified. "They know whom to talk to, what they need to ask them, how to work through questions and how to get answers."

The 28-page booklet began as a project for Sharon Philippe, the Parent Teacher Student Assn. president at Capistrano Valley High School, who got the idea when a friend, whose son was starting high school, admitted feeling frustrated and uninformed.

"She said, 'If someone had just told me to take a chair to that track meet, I'd be a happier person; you should write a book about this stuff,' " Philippe recalled.

So Philippe and the rest of the school's PTSA group started keeping lists of things they thought every incoming high school student's parents needed to know.

Facts about how grades are weighted in advanced-placement classes went on the list. Deadlines for taking college placement tests were included. Parents also are instructed on the most effective ways to get answers from teachers and administrators.

Going beyond academic guidelines, the handbook addresses district etiquette for dances, sports played at the district's four high schools and funding for extracurricular activities, such as drama.

"They may seem like silly little inconsequential things," Philippe said. "But the frustration level of parents [new to] high school is just overwhelming."

There are two aims to the project. First, the guide's creators said, they want to encourage parents to take an active role in their teens' high school experience.

"If you have an idea of what goes on, you're more likely to come in and contribute," Elliot said. "This book is a vehicle for making parents more comfortable and involved in their children's education."

As parent-teacher conference opportunities dwindle and campus populations grow, parents often have to work harder to stay involved, Elliot said.

"In elementary and middle school, there are lots of opportunities for parents to be involved, and lots of conferences between teachers and parents," she said. "But in high school, there's just Back to School Night and Open House at either end of the year."

Parents hope the book also will open the lines of communication with teenagers at a time when the gap grows between the generations.

"High school is the time when you really start cutting the apron strings," Elliot said. "This book gives [parents] openings to start conversations and hear what their child's really thinking."

And that communication makes the difference between a teen going through high school alone and one who's outfitted with the wisdom of an army of concerned parents, said Linda Krieger, president of the PTA council for the district.

"Parents need to be involved," Krieger said. "It makes all the difference in the world."

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