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Middle school helps parents With resource center

Part of a national partnership program to encourage parent and community involvement in schools, a parent resource center in a Connecticut middle school helps parents understand their middle-school-age youngsters. Included: Tips for starting a parent center in your school!

School & Parents Together Parents of middle school children often ponder why a once-loving child seems to change, almost overnight, as puberty approaches. A formerly sweet child now sulks. Respect turns to belligerence and intelligent behavior gives way to irresponsible conduct. For many parents of middle school children, the terrible twos would be a welcome change from the turbulent teens.

Timothy Neville, the former principal of Kennedy Middle School in Enfield, Connecticut, said parents are often filled with anxiety and concern when children become teenagers. Parents often tell Neville their child was fine until he or she got to middle school. "I think middle school is a difficult age," Neville said. "Lots of things happen when kids become teens."

Linda Gademan, the librarian at Kennedy Middle School, and Kathy Kowalenko, the library's media-specialist, wanted to find a way to help parents better understand the middle school child. With a grant from the Connecticut Education Association and the endorsement of the Enfield Board of Education, the women led the effort to establish a parent resource center last spring.

The resource center, located in a corner of the school library, cost about $2,000 to set-up, Gademan said. The grant paid for a new bookcase, about 60 books, and a few videotapes. Parents can borrow books and tapes that focus on a variety of topics pertaining specifically to middle school children. Free pamphlets offer parents tips on how to parent and enjoy living with the middle school child.

Speakers too!

The center is open during school hours and every other Thursday from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Special events are scheduled from time to time. For example, in January, Dr. Robert Robinson, a licensed marriage and family therapist, presented a discussion on the parent's role in helping a child deal with bullies.

Neville said middle school children tend to be physical and to pick on each other. This is troubling to most parents, he said. Parents don't understand why a child is bullied or why he or she becomes a bully. Dr. Robinson, the director of Family Care Counseling Associates, Inc., offered information about the cultural influences on children, peer relationships, the warning signs of potential problems, and how to keep children safe and bully-free.

Other speakers have included the school resource officer, who is also a member of the Enfield Police Department. He discussed the rights and responsibilities of parents and their children. The school psychologist also spoke at the center.


Part of a home-school-community partnership

The center is part of the Home School Community Partnership, a national initiative to get parents and members of the community involved in schools. The National Education Association (NEA) offers training and materials to help school systems develop partnerships between family, school, and community members.

Kennedy's Parent Resource Center is just one aspect of the partnership that makes Enfield a model for the program, said Teresa Rankin, an organizational specialist for the NEA. If you can get the teachers, the parents, the political leaders, and the administration to come together, there are always positive results that improve the child's education, Rankin said.

The Enfield Home School Community Partnership began in 1996. At the request of Gademan, the Board of Education endorsed the development of the partnership. The Connecticut Education Association, an affiliate of the national organization, provides monetary support for the town's programs, and the National Education Association provided training.

The school board hired a long-time parent volunteer, Amy Witbro, to coordinate the partnership. Maggie Mahland, a director with the CEA, said the addition of Witbro really made the difference in the program's success. Witbro keeps the communication flowing between town businesses, the school board, teachers, and parent groups, Mahland said.

The partnership sponsors many special programs, including the Kids Vote project, which resulted in an increase in adult voter turnout in Enfield -- an increase that bucked a statewide trend. Another project, a weeklong Families Matter project, focused on family activities that included a road race, guest speakers, a family fitness night, and a ban on TV for the week. While these were special, one-time events, the parent center has been an ongoing project.

If we build a center, will parents come? 

Similar to the other partnership programs, the parent center required considerable effort and planning before it became a reality. First, a parent survey was conducted to determine its need. Gademan surveyed parents whose children participated in an after-school program at the middle school. Most said their children bewildered them and that they would benefit from a parent resource center.

Gademan and Mahland pitched the idea for a parent center to Dr. John Gallacher, Enfield superintendent of schools, and Ann Malone, then the chairwoman of the Enfield Board of Education. After receiving their nod of approval, they presented the concept to the Enfield Board of Education.

With the school board's endorsement, Gademan and Mahland then attended the NEA training in Dallas. The NEA and CEA continue to offer partnership training, and Gademan was a trainer earlier this month; educators and community members from eight other Connecticut school districts attended the workshop.

"Through the Home School Community Partnership training by the NEA, I learned about the barriers, some unwitting barriers, to having parents in our schools,'' Gademan said. "We decided the middle school is really a focus we wanted to have. You need parents more than ever at this age."

Neville agreed. "We know a key ingredient to a student's success is to focus on parent involvement," he said.

Gademan and Neville both said the resource center is one way to break down those barriers between the school and the community.


The center was created with coziness in mind. After painting the area in a soft shade of cream, Gademan brought a large framed painting from her home to hang on the wall. She also brought in some plants, cleaned up an old round coffee table, and surrounded it with five comfortable chairs from the library.

Gademan and Neville both realize they need to market the resource center more aggressively. Next month, they will post information from the resource center on the school Web site.

"We assumed if we built it, they would come,'' Gademan said. The turnout at many events and during the center's evening hours has been less than expected -- even with the added enticement of home-baked goodies and other refreshments.

"We have to let [parents] know what's there,'' Neville commented. The center needs to be open more often during the evening to accommodate working parents, he added.

"I think the need is there and always has been there," Neville, an educator for the past 27 years, maintained. Throughout his career, parents continue to ask the same questions: "Is my kid OK? Is this normal?"

Thinking about setting up a parent center? 

Are you thinking about setting up a parent center in your school? Linda Gademan has some tips for you! here to read those tips!

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Article by Diane Weaver Dunne
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