Get On the Bus!

December 1, 2000

pictureDrawing parents into the school community and helping them participate actively in their children's learning is one of the great challenges of contemporary education. There is overwhelming evidence that parent involvement is critical to a child's success in school. Nevertheless, many parents do not feel they have the skills to help their children with homework, and do not feel integrated or even welcomed into the school community. At the same time, teachers and administrators often have their own fears and misconceptions about interacting with parents, and are seldom formally prepared to collaborate with them. So while schools and school systems acknowledge the need to foster meaningful parent involvement, relatively few achieve it.

Educational technology can complicate this problem. The momentum around technology-integration in public schools is only growing, and though this is generally a positive trend, one side effect is the extra difficulty that technology-integration creates for educators and parents who are trying to work together - particularly economically disadvantaged or socially underrepresented areas. In communities where the only free access to computers is in schools, parents can find themselves further excluded from the educational process as their children increasingly work with unfamiliar and intimidating tools. Thus the much-talked-of digital divide can separate not only wealthy communities from poorer ones, but also computer-literate children from their parents.

This past summer, a colleague and I from the Center for Children and Technology spent time with some educators in Baltimore who are rethinking the "problem" of parent involvement. Staff from the Baltimore County Public School (BCPS) system's Office of Parent and Community Relations have created an outstanding program that is breaking down the logistical and psychological barriers that keep Baltimore County parents from getting more involved in their children's education. With the Parentmobile project, they are tackling low parent involvement by physically bringing educational technology out into the community.

Based on the old and successful model of the bookmobile, the Parentmobile is a cheerfully decorated school bus, refitted with comfortable seating, stocked with computers and curricular materials, and staffed by friendly, accessible parent liaisons and parent volunteers.

Onboard the Parentmobile, a BCPS grandmother uses a mouse for the first time, with help from her granddaughter.

Rather than trying to pull parents into schools, BCPS uses the Parentmobile to seek them out. The bus sets up at school and community events, such as school fairs and festivals, and also goes directly to locations frequented by parents, parking in high-traffic areas like the parking lots of shopping centers and supermarkets, and outside the offices and factories of local employers during lunch and after work. On the bus, parents can ask questions about their children's curriculum and school in general, learn about the hardware and software their children are using in school, receive introductory training on Internet use, and begin building relationships with fellow parents as well as school and district staff.

I visited the Parentmobile on a bright Friday morning in May. The AOL Foundation awarded BCPS one of its Interactive Education Initiative grants, and my colleague and I were conducting an evaluation of the initiative. We parked on the grass at an elementary school fair, directly between a hot dog stand and a finger-painting booth. Kathy Kelly, Linda Ross and Linda Richardson - the three creators of the project - and parent volunteer Betsey Schaeffer set up with speedy efficiency. They pulled pamphlets, brochures, worksheets and posters from a chest hidden under a padded bench and laid them out on tables. They booted up Blueberry IMacs. The front entrance was hung with potted plants and "Welcome!" signs. With its brightly-painted mural and big blue "Parentmobile" name tag in two-foot high blue letters on the side, the bus looked perfectly at home amid the picnic tables and game booths, and equally inviting. Shortly after our arrival, children and their parents began to trickle in, and before long the bus was full.

The Sources of an Unusual Approach
The Baltimore County Public School system is not unique, but a number of factors allowed for an innovative approach to parent involvement. Firstly, the architects of the Parentmobile had relative autonomy. Former teacher and staff developer Kathy Kelly, former human resources staffer Linda Ross, and former banking trainer Linda Richardson had all been assigned to the newly reorganized Office of Community and Parent Relations in 1997, handed a district-wide mandate to strengthen parent involvement, and given little else in terms of directives. "We were given a great deal of freedom to imagine strategies," says Kelly, who came to the office from ten years of running an adult night school and being a BCPS staff developer, "and that was key. Frankly, we were not well known the first two years, and that helped us." This freedom might have bordered on obscurity, but, says Kelly, "I think there was some uniqueness to the fact that Sharon [Norman, who came from Business, Community and Parent Relations to head the combined office] supported us, and that she reports directly to the Superintendent."

Secondly, Kelly, Ross and Richardson became students of parent relations. Though each of them came to the office with an already extensive background in education, they were willing to see themselves as novices, to dive into research on parents and schools, and to allow the things they learned to drive their office's approach. "We were researching on the Internet, Gallup polls, the Met Life teacher survey," Kelly recounts. A key source of information was the research of Dr. Joyce Epstein at the Johns Hopkins Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships. Dr. Epstein's work provided Kelley and her colleagues with "a bigger language for thinking about parent involvement." Epstein's model, which has been adapted and adopted by the national PTA, defines six types of parent involvement: parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making/advocacy and collaborating with the community. Each of these is important to student success, but as Kelly explains, one is more important than the others: Most people would think this is volunteering, but it's learning at home: encouraging, supporting and assisting your child in homework, and having a positive attitude about schools - this can overcome a lot of other stuff, including the parent's own level of education. So we can help schools expand the model of only counting the hours of parent volunteering and rethink what an involved parent looks like.

Finally, the women were flexible in envisioning the services they could provide. Instead of searching for better ways to run parent workshops, they considered new approaches to parent/school relations. Both their research and their professional experience encouraged them to move away from working exclusively with parents, and towards the kind of staff development that would improve the entire system. From Epstein, they learned that the "international average" for attendance at parent-ed workshops is 10 people. "So why are we wasting our time?" Kelly asked.

I'd been a staff developer and I knew that if you're doing good stuff, you want 30 or 40 people attending each workshop. We have 1000 parents in a school and we have 10 showing up? This was goofy. I knew that if you're really going to change a system you have to work with its members. So I would say an important shift was turning to see our people in the system as clients as well.

The Office began offering workshops to schools, sharing what they were learning from Epstein and other sources about involved parenting. "A lot of the data pulled us in a direction of what to do with staff," Kelly explains. New information fueled new work. Statistics like one "real gem" from the Metropolitan Life Teachers Survey, that 19% of parents and 55% of teachers are uncomfortable talking to one another, informed new kinds of workshops - in this case a highly attended series on running a successful parent conference. And while Kelly, Ross and Richardson still worked with parents who came into schools for workshops, they were still mulling over other more effective ways to engage parents. They defined their goals as:

  • To expand the ways that schools systems engage parents;
  • To change the way that parents, particularly those who do not feel comfortable in schools, look at us;
  • To connect parents to the world of technology that we are exploring with their children;
  • To create a project that will translate to increased confidence and skills for participating parents and carry through to their children's education.

Thus the Office of Community and Parent Relations was fertile ground for an idea like the Parentmobile to take root. When Linda Ross first recalled the bookmobiles from her childhood that brought libraries to many communities, she and Kelly and Richardson had already ingested new ideas about parents and were committed to exploring new directions in their work. Though the Parentmobile idea began from casual conversation among the three women, it quickly solidified into a course of action.

Building the Bus: Materials, Technology and Curriculum
Soon after Ross brought it up, Kelly discussed the idea of a high-tech bookmobile with Rita Fromm, who heads BCPS's Office of Transportation. "When she said she'd donate a bus, in my mind, the Parentmobile was built," Kelly says. "I knew that if a reasonable and intelligent person would go for the idea, it was possible."

From the moment of that initial donation, Kelly and her colleagues used personal and professional connections, good will, and persistence to build a remarkable coalition of supporters and collaborators. The county Office of Transportation also eventually donated a mechanic, Kenny Morosko, to retrofit the bus, and he became its "technical wizard," overseeing the entire process. The Department of Maintenance donated a project manager and carpenters to furnish it; electricians came from elsewhere in the system to wire the bus for lights, fans, and air conditioning, and local businesses provided much of the material and labor to repair and repaint it. The Maryland State Department of Education funded key equipment and materials, and provided ongoing support through its Family Involvement Branch. The paintings for the outside walls were contributed by BCPS students through a system-wide design contest, and painted by students and teachers as a summer project. In this way, the Parentmobile's message - that schools belong to the community - was built into the structure of the bus itself.

"In hard cash we spent about $25,000," Kelly estimates, "but I think that without all of the donated time and in-kind contributions, it would cost $65,000 to replicate."

In the past year, expense has not discouraged two nearby districts from soliciting BCPS's help to design their own Parentmobiles. Kelly's office works continually to improve its ability to help others replicate the project.

Creating a mobile computer lab for the bus proved to be more complicated and difficult than Kelly and the others initially anticipated. Fortunately, the structure of BCPS's technical-support system was sufficiently flexible to give the Parentmobile the help it needed. Michael Fort became the Parentmobile's dedicated technician - making it his business to troubleshoot hardware and software problems on the bus. When the initial PCs they had purchased proved difficult to physically secure to countertops within the moving bus, the Department of Technology arranged a trade for more portable Imacs. When the team discovered that it was not possible to connect the computers to the Internet - using a wireless connection was both burdensome and prohibitively expensive - they created a special Intranet for the terminals on the bus by downloading sites that they felt would be of interest to parents from the community.

Kelly, Ross and Richardson also collaborated with stakeholders on the project's content. They partnered with the county PTA from the outset, meeting regularly with the PTA's Parent Involvement chair to give updates and seek advice on the bus's curriculum. The PTA, along with BCPS staff, also helped recruit 15 parent volunteers from different parts of the county to help staff the bus, ensuring that wherever the Parentmobile went, there would always be someone from the local area to help make visitors feel welcome. They received instructional and informational materials, including learning activities from Parent Resource Centers throughout the system who saw the Parentmobile as an effective way to reach parents.

The finished Parentmobile is a model of efficient use of space. In the front half of the bus, Apple IMacs are lined up at three computer stations. Beyond these in a comfortable, kitchen-nook-style sitting area, volunteers have room to talk to visitors over coffee and light snacks, and to guide them through an extensive library of curriculum materials aimed at parents of students of every grade and ability level. A television and VCR allow visitors to access a collection of informational and educational videos. In the back, a play area stocked with toys ensures that parents with young children in tow have the time for a meaningful visit.

On the Bus
The intensive theoretical, interpersonal and physical work that went into the Parentmobile were all clearly evident on the day of my visit. As the bus filled with children, parents and grandparents, I could see the careful balance the Parentmobile staff strike between letting parents freely explore and helping them find the resources they need. Parent volunteer Betsey Schaeffer greeted visitors at the entrance and invited them in, but did not immediately ply them with materials. "Usually my function is to be the greeter and not make them feel overwhelmed," she says. "They don't know what it is when they come on - are they going to try to sell me something? - so we orient them briefly and let them wander around and we do our best to answer their questions and make them feel comfortable, pointing them to the right book or brochure or Web site."

I watched as parents were guided by their own curiosity, or by their children. To my left, adults were investigating the computers - some of them for the first time. Parent liaisons and volunteers gave them room to tinker with the machines in a relaxed, comfortable way before offering assistance, engaging them in conversations about their experience with computers, and pointing them to certain features.

In the course of a couple of hours, dozens of parents swept through the crowded bus. I watched many of them hovering over the computer stations, first marveling at their children's computer skills, then hunkering down next to them to share keyboard space. Most impressively, I watched numerous adults enter with obvious fear - "Computers don't like me and I don't like them!" one grandmother announced - and leave with a new curiosity and excitement about technology. And not only about technology, but about schools in general. To my right, parents were sitting at the "kitchen table" with staff, talking over materials and ideas on helping children with homework, teaching them conflict resolution skills, and dealing with Attention Deficit Disorder and proper nutrition. Parent comment sheets have helped BCPS tailor onboard holdings to parent needs: when parents early on asked for more materials on special education, behavior and discipline, and homework help, the project staff made speedy changes. Because the bus is almost always staffed by a parent volunteer from the community being visited, volunteers are also able to have broad, relaxed conversations with visitors about how to get more involved with the local school. As Schaeffer describes these conversations, "A lot of what I talk to them about is my experience as an involved parent. I have two children, one in fifth grade and one in third. And I listen a lot to their experiences and I try to inject things that I have tried."

When a parent's questions exceed the bounds of her knowledge, Schaeffer points them to one of the parent liaisons from the BCPS staff. "Kathy and Linda are the ones that really have all the answers, and I see them helping a lot of parents in neighborhoods that aren't very well off, where parents work all the time and we can go to their workplace. The looks on some of their faces when they leave - there's relief there. 'Wow. There's help out there and there's someone I can call. The school really does care about me.'"


Andrew Gersick