by Mike Kennedy

Students begin each new school term with a review period. Should parents have one, too?

Studies show that children typically forget 20% of what they learn from the end of one school year to the start of the next. If only their parents retained knowledge that well! Indeed, at the start of each new school year, many grown-ups show the effects of “summer slide” more than their kids do. They forget the ironclad rules of student-parenting and, in some cases, overlook the fact that their offspring are becoming more capable and mature with each passing school year. Parental participation in a child’s education is encouraged and welcome. Different schools handle this in different ways, of course, but what they all have in common is a bumpy back-to-school period where teachers, administrators, moms and dads can struggle to regain their bearings. Unfortunately, there’s no review period for parents. “Communication is always critical to a successful school opening,” says Nancy Leaderman,


Upper School Principal at the Golda Och Academy, in West Orange. “The transition from the relaxed days of summer into a more structured daily experience can be challenging.” How does that challenge manifest itself? Occasionally, says Nat Conard, Headmaster at The Pingry School’s Martinsville campus, it often comes in the form of parents who have good intentions but unreal expectations. “Families at our school are very committed to getting their children the best possible education,” he explains. “The parents want the best for their kids.” Teachers across the state echo this sentiment. In fact, it’s important to note that many educators are parents themselves. They understand better than anyone the delicate balance required to provide a nurturing, healthy school environment—and to let kids find their own way. “We want students to be active participants in their education,” says Christine McCoid, Assistant Principal at Union Catholic Regional High School in Scotch Plains. Problems tend to crop up when parents overstep established boundaries. According to Monsignor Kevin Hanbury, Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Newark, that is sometimes the case when a school needs to discipline a student. “Parents have to be honest,” he says. “They have to acknowledge that their kids aren’t angels.” Msgr. Hanbury believes this mindset is part of the “cult of self-esteem that is ruining our children.” He feels that parents have to set realistic goals for their kids. “You don’t have to dumb everything down,” he says. “That doesn’t prepare kids for the challenges of real life.” He gets no argument from Peggy Campbell Rush, Lower School Director for the Gil St. Bernard’s school in Gladstone. “Some parents try to live vicariously through their kids,” she says. “You might be able to get away with that in elementary school, but ultimately it’s a teacher’s job to help children learn to be independent and morally and socially responsible.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Every school has a different code of conduct, and every teacher has a different style of educating students. But all agree on at least one thing: creating open and free lines of communication with parents is essential. Indeed, at schools statewide, there is a premium placed on including parents in the learning experience. A good example is Oratory Preparatory School in Summit. “Parents are encouraged to be a part of their child’s education process,” says Susan Dougherty, the school’s Public Relations Coordinator. “We don’t hold hands, but we do give parents and teens the tools they need to chisel out their own pathway on the road to higher education.” One way that Oratory does this is by posting all homework assignments online—standard practice for an increasing number of New Jersey schools. Scores on tests and quizzes are displayed periodically, as well. “Parents know exactly how their child did on a given day with a specific test,” says Dougherty. Offering online access to a student’s day-to-day activities has also become more prevalent. But it does have potential drawbacks. For some parents, monitoring their child’s performance can turn into an obsession.

The tech age has also led to problems with cell-phone use in schools. Texting is probably the most disruptive factor of all. According to McCoid, parents are often as guilty of this as their kids. “We have strict regulations for our students about cell phones,” she says. “They can’t be seen or heard during the day. Unfortunately, we have no way of enforcing this rule with parents. We’re trying to educate them that, although they have the ability to communicate directly with their kids, it’s not always appropriate.” According to Gloria Kron, Lower School Principal at Golda Och, that’s where schools have to work extra-hard to establish ground rules. “With parents who are ‘overly involved,’ we use our best judgment about whether the classroom teacher, school guidance counselor or administrator should communicate appropriate and helpful boundaries in order to highlight increased success for student development,” she says. Conard embraces a similar approach with the families at Pingry. “Sometimes, you need to be quite direct before the school year starts,” he says. “It all comes back to shared recognition of the partnership between parents and the school.” One of the problems that Leaderman has dealt with at Golda Och are moms and dads who insist on a specific teacher for a student. “Parents often need to be reassured that we have appropriately placed their children in the correct levels, with the appropriate teachers and friends,” she says. Campbell Rush has had similar experiences, noting that a good deal of thought goes into class placement. “I don’t mind if parents come to us with valid concerns,” she says, “but they have to realize that we work very hard to achieve classroom balance.” One of the classic summer slide no-no’s is bypassing the chain of command. That could mean ignoring security stops or the administrative office when entering a school. Or it might be going over a teacher’s head and seeking an audience with a principal or administrator for what is strictly a classroom issue. As any educator will tell you, this type of behavior ultimately impedes the educational process.

It can undermine a teacher’s authority and create an adversarial relationship between the parent and the school. It can also be a burden on the child. “Students study and achieve best when they are respected, challenged, encouraged and supported in a nurturing environment,” says Sister Regina Martin, Principal at Mother Seton Regional High School in Clark. “At home and in school.” Educators emphasize this point again and again. If they don’t have the support and cooperation of parents, their jobs become all the more difficult and the children are the ones who lose. “We’re in the business of joyful learning,” says Campbell Rush. “It’s okay for parents to ask questions, but there has to be a level of trust.”