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Parental Involvement Goes A Long Way

Volunteering at a child's school has proved to be beneficial for a child's education and personal development. That fact hit home one day in the halls of Terra Centre Elementary School for parent April Dougherty, whose son Connor is a kindergartner.

"There's nothing that makes you volunteer more than hearing 'Hi, Connor's mom,'" Dougherty said.

Terra Centre was one of the four Fairfax County schools that were recently awarded a certificate of excellence for parent involvement by the National PTA. That group equates parental involvement with academic achievement. The other county schools receiving awards were Hayfield Secondary School, Hughes Middle School and Annandale Terrace Elementary.

"Parent and family involvement increases student achievement and success," says the National PTA Web site. The site lists six standards of parent/family involvement programs: communications, parenting, student learning, volunteering, school decision making and advocacy, and collaborating with the community. According to National PTA information, "Effectively engaging parents and families in the education of their children has the potential to be far more transformational than any other type of education reform." The group also claims that students whose parents are not involved are more likely to drop out of school.

Principal Michelle Sims sees parental involvement making a difference at Terra Centre as well.

"When parents are involved, the children do better," Sims said. "You can tell when children don't have that support or involvement."

WHEN THE CHILDREN come to register for the coming year, all the parents are introduced to the volunteer opportunities at Terra Centre, Sims said. The school hosts a volunteer breakfast at registration as well. Parental involvement varies from reading and art programs in the school, to working on a home computer or clipping coupons to gain dollars in various programs. Worksheets are sent home on a regular basis explaining the benefits of parental involvement and giving parents tips on how to help their children with scholastic programs.

While Dougherty and fellow PTA president Cathy Gaiser are stay-at-home mothers, they also try to incorporate working parents in any capacity possible. Dougherty worked while her daughter was a student at Terra Centre. She is now a seventh-grader at Robinson.

"It's a time issue," Dougherty said. "It's not that parents don't want to. I would come home at 6 and try to do it all."

Sims tries to deal with the financial reality of the area.

"You try to be sensitive to parents that can't come in," she said.

Even though many families have two working parents, Terra Centre PTA president Cathy Gaiser said the amount of volunteering is increasing.

"Every year, volunteering has gotten better," Gaiser said.

SIMS COUNTS ON three non-English-speaking women to help with children who come from non-English-speaking households.

"We have a group of women that speak little English, but they're vital," Sims said. "They come in every week.”

Kathy Chappell is a registered nurse but still manages to fit in time at Terra Centre with her children Merrie, 10, and Emily, 6. Chappell was at a seminar last summer at James Madison University when she heard about the National PTA recognition for school volunteering. She was credited with spearheading the application process.

"I thought about that the minute I came out of there," she said.

Chappell filled out the multipaged application, counting up a total of 500 volunteer hours by the Terra Centre volunteers.

Although the parental involvement was equated with academic success, Terra Centre is not the No. 1 elementary school in the county academically. Dougherty and Gaiser noted that not all the schools had applied for the recognition.

"We took the incentive to do it," Chappell said.

HAYFIELD'S RECOGNITION is a first for a high school in the Northern Virginia area. The school had a high level of parental involvement, which is different at the high-school level, according to Chris McHarg, a vice president of their PTSA (Parent Teacher and Student Association). The students are older, and their level of independence is greater in the teenage years. McHarg has a daughter, Molly, in 11th grade, and a son, Matt, in ninth grade at Hayfield.

"In high school, the parents don't always feel they have a role," McHarg said.

She sees the parental involvement affecting "not only good grades but better attendance, more graduates and less drugs and alcohol," she said. "High school is when you can kind of lose things."

Ken Halla is a social studies teacher at Hayfield as well as the cross-country track coach. The parental involvement comes through in attitude, he noticed.

"When a parent is more involved in the academic process, the student is more enthusiastic," Halla said.

This was the first year that Hayfield applied to the National PTA for the award. McHarg said they heard about it from a National PTA bulletin and formed a committee of nine or 10 parents to fill out the application.