lunes, 29 de diciembre de 2008


The Parent-Teacher Talk Gains a New Participant

Beth Rooney for The New York Times
Syndie Sablik and her daughters Cheriden, 12, and Carrigan, 9, at a conference at Tefft Middle School in Streamwood, Ill.
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Published: December 27, 2008
STREAMWOOD, Ill. — For years attendance was minimal at Tefft Middle School’s annual parent-teacher conferences, but the principal did not chalk up the poor response to apathetic or dysfunctional families. Instead, she blamed what she saw as the outmoded, irrelevant way the conferences were conducted.
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Beth Rooney for The New York Times
Scheree Issa, left, listens as her daughter, Cierra Turks, 13, and Courtney Byer, a teacher, discuss a writing assignment at Tefft.
Roughly 60 percent of the 850 students at Tefft, in this working-class suburb some 30 miles northwest of Chicago, are from low-income families. Many are immigrants, unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the tradition of parents perched in pint-size chairs, listening intently as a teacher delivers a 15-minute soliloquy on their child’s academic progress, or lack thereof.
“Five years ago, the most important person — the student — was left out of the parent-teacher conference,” Tefft’s principal, Lavonne Smiley, said. “The old conferences were such a negative thing, so we turned it around by removing all the barriers and obstacles,” including allowing students not only to attend but also to lead the gatherings instead of anxiously awaiting their parents’ return home with the teacher’s verdict on their classroom performance.
Recently, 525 parents attended parent-teacher-student conferences, Ms. Smiley said, compared with 75 parents in 2003. No appointments were needed, and everyone was welcome at the conferences this year, spread over two days that school officials called a Celebration of Learning.
Student-led conferences are gaining ground at elementary and middle schools nationwide, said Patti Kinney, an associate director for middle-level services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Virginia.
Although researchers have long hailed the benefits of such conferences — anointing students as the main stakeholders in their education, accountable for their performance during the school day and responsible for their academic future — their popularity appears to be increasing in part because of the rapidly shifting demographics at public schools nationwide. The classrooms, after all, are where a community’s changing cultural identity is often first glimpsed.
“I think we’re learning that every school has its own DNA, and there is not a prescription for conferences that works for every school,” Ms. Kinney said. “There is such an increasingly diverse population at our nation’s schools, the one-size-fits-all model conference just doesn’t work anymore.”
At some schools, not only are students on hand for conferences, but their siblings are also welcome, as are grandparents, aunts and uncles, even family friends.
When Mark Heller accepted a job as an assistant principal at the middle school in his hometown of Plano, Ill., he discovered that the community had changed a lot in the eight years he had been a teacher in Iowa. The population had nearly doubled to 10,000 residents, and 37 percent of the students at Plano Middle School were now from low-income families.
Bolstered by the success of student-led conferences at his Iowa school, Mr. Heller also realized that changing the model was not enough to accommodate families with limited English proficiency, many of whom work shifts at area factories.
The traditional parent-teacher conferences without a student present are always available by appointment, and sometimes necessary, for example, to discuss a private matter concerning a noncustodial parent, a family crisis the child is unaware of or a special education diagnosis.
Still, Mr. Heller is convinced that a true dialogue concerning a student’s academic progress is impossible without both the child and the parent engaged and present, and with the teacher on hand to share impressions and answer any questions the parents have about homework, standardized test scores, behavior and other issues.
First, Mr. Heller made sure to schedule the student-led conferences when as many children, parents and teachers could attend, which turned out to be over two days in late October.
More Articles in Education » A version of this article appeared in print on December 28, 2008, on page A23 of the New York edition.
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