Project Support: Engaging Children and Families in the Educational Process

Article excerpt

At both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, children, families, and schools are often found to be at odds. Many children live in high-risk communities - where jobs are scarce and drugs are readily accessible, where three families live in a house meant for one, and where too many mothers decide it is safer to keep their children home rather than send them to school. In affluent neighborhoods, there are youths who suffer in silence. They come from households where there is little supervision because both parents work outside the home, from overachieving households, and from homes where prescription drugs and before-dinner cocktails are common. Reflective of their experiences in large public schools, urban and suburban, these children often express the feeling that no one really knows who they are, no one cares. Many children suffer from a lack of consistency and stability in their lives. That, coupled with pervasive violence in the immediate environment, makes for unhealthy physical, emotional, psychological, and academic development.

Recent research confirms that having informed, concerned, involved parents correlates positively with children's attitudes toward school and their performance (Viadero, 1995). Yet, parents seem to play less and less of a role in their children's education. Thus, the role played by caring school adults is important (Hayes, Ryan & Zseller, 1994; Wehlage, Rutter, Smith, Lesko, & Fernandez, 1989). It seems that the development of a strong, positive relationship with a caring school adult is crucial to how an adolescent perceives his or her school experience, and this caring adult can become an effective link to the child's family. Such findings reinforce our understanding of the importance of the connections between caring school adults, the family, children's attitudes toward school, and achievement.

Based on research, Project Support was designed to build bridges between family, school adults, community service, and children. Its main goal - teenage alcohol, drug, and dropout prevention - was to be attained by]inking child and family with school and community. Although the project's population was defined as at-risk, the premises and practices apply to all children.

Project Support was directed at middle school children who lived in at-risk communities and who confronted, on a daily basis, any of several risk factors that challenge academic achievement, healthy living, and personal self-worth. They were children in early adolescence, a life stage some consider as a potential risk factor. The four districts targeted for Project Support had high percentages of minority students, high levels of poverty, substantial levels of academic failure, and high dropout rates relative to the rest of the county. Because of the number and variety of risk factors present, the project was designed to reach children in numerous ways: partnerships between the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) and the four school districts of Nassau County (New York), between BOCES and various community-based social service agencies, and between BOCES and the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University; a school-based mentoring program; a tutorial component that linked college classroom lessons in multicultural education to guided practice with middle school students; a curriculum development component; a parent participation component; a dissemination component to publicize findings and to assist others with modification and replication; and the Outdoor and Environmental Education (OEE) program which was originally conceived as supporting the mentoring program.

The OEE program and the school-based mentoring program proved to be very effective ways to reach and engage children and their families. The two became inseparable in supporting staff, children, and families. For the sake of clarity, each component is discussed separately.

Teachers were chosen to be mentors by the principals of the four junior high/middle schools involved in Project Support. …