City Life: Get parents involved and students will improve

On Feb. 28, the school board held a study session to review options for improving performance at 11 Costa Mesa program improvement, or PI, schools.

The study session reviewed data and included the presentation of four improvement options, each of which will require investments in dollars and time.

The most important point of the afternoon was made by Trustee Karen Yelsey, who inquired as to the level of parental "buy-in" attached to these programs.

I e-mailed her to give her an opportunity to elaborate.

"It's important that we look at all options available to help improve performance at our PI schools," she wrote. "We have already initiated several new programs and are considering more. We have committed teachers who are studying the data and collaborating to identify each child's individual needs.

"In addition to more time with students, the last crucial piece in this complex puzzle of achievement is 'parental buy-in' or commitment to collaborate with our teachers. We need our parents to support the work being done in the classroom and make sure learning continues outside of the school day.

"If a child knows that he or she is expected to read a certain amount of time each night and complete homework, those patterns will become routine. The teacher, the parents and the student should all have the same expectations and goals, and let's hope that they set the bar high."

Kudos to Yelsey for broaching the subject.

What follows are my opinions, not necessarily hers.

There is a mountain of evidence to support the benefits of greater parental involvement in schools, including a 2002 report from Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, which showed that students with involved parents are more likely to:

•Earn higher grades and test scores.

•Enroll in higher-level programs.

•Be promoted, pass their classes and earn credits.

Attend school regularly.

Have better social skills, show improved behavior and adapt well to school.

Graduate and go on to postsecondary education.

Many of the students in the 11 Costa Mesa schools come from homes where education is a low priority and parents have little appreciation of the doors a good education can open.

In many of these homes, parents work longer hours and students are sometimes working to contribute to the family's finances. There are language challenges, too.

But these are excuses for a lack of parental involvement, not causes. There are many good schools across the country that are thriving, despite their socioeconomic conditions.

In at least one of the programs presented at the study session, there was talk of student assessments to determine their progress.

That's important, but any new program should require parents to commit sufficient time to their child's education. Along with student assessments, there should be periodic parental assessments.

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District has the teachers and the facilities it needs to help these students achieve more, and a strong case could be made that we are addressing the wrong problem and asking the wrong questions.

Perhaps we don't need to throw more money at the problem; we only need a plan to boost parental involvement.

It is long past the time for the community to stop tiptoeing around this subject and to start holding parents accountable for their lack of commitment to their child's education. Send the message in English, in Spanish or in Swahili. I don't care.

Someone in a key position must start delivering straight, tough talk that will either inspire or shame these parents into action.

We should not invest a dime on any new program unless it has a strong parental involvement component. Without it, these programs are just more education spaghetti thrown against the wall to see what sticks.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to

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