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    Perfect project? Parents pitched in

    If the science fair looks more like an engineering trade show, chances are mom or dad lent a hand.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 13, 2003

    Nancy Johnson knew her daughter's science project was okay, but nothing special.

    Her daughter, Brittany, did her own research. She dressed up the nondescript project board with a few colorful sheets of paper. It was what you would expect from a bright 8-year-old.

    Then Johnson visited Brittany's classroom at St. Petersburg's Bay Point Elementary and saw the competition.

    "My mouth about dropped to the floor," Johnson said. "I thought I'd taken a wrong turn into some visiting Smithsonian exhibit."

    Johnson had just experienced one of the unwritten realities of school projects: Many parents can't resist the temptation to help a little. Or in some cases, a lot.

    In classrooms everywhere, plain white poster boards end up next to three-dimensional models of the solar system with rotating interplanetary parts and blinking lights. Sad shoe-box dioramas compete with breathtaking miniature scenes that would make Cecil B. DeMille proud.

    If a third-grader's project looks like it was done by an electrical engineer, it probably was.

    Teachers know it. Kids know it. Parents who don't know it find out sooner or later.

    Maybe it's one more example of baby boomer parents micromanaging their children's lives. Maybe all the whiz-bang technology makes it easier for parents to help out.

    Whatever the reason, excessive parental involvement is a topic that's rarely discussed.

    "Teachers, parents and students borrow from the military," Johnson said. "Don't ask, don't tell."

    Teachers rarely complain about parental collaboration. They like it when parents get involved.

    "If the parent and the student are working together, I'm sure there's learning going on," said Susan Rine, the administrator in charge of elementary education for Pasco schools, who confesses to lending more than moral support to some of her own children's projects. "Experienced teachers know how to handle it."

    Teachers insist they know a collaborative effort when they see it. And they know that some parents have neither the time nor the money to get involved. They say they try to look beyond the bells and whistles and award grades fairly.

    Parents have a different challenge. They must decide when to leave their kids alone, when to help a little and when to bow to the pressure of tears and bedtime and just get the thing done.

    * * *

    Meet Deb Zinovoy -- Queen of the Diorama.

    The Odessa mom is one of those parents who can't resist getting hands-on with her kid's school projects. She knows she sometimes overdoes it.

    "I keep saying I ought to just let her flunk one of these," Zinovoy said. "But I can't."

    Zinovoy's daughter, Gianna, 10, has a book report due. She read the book and can tell you all about the characters. But that's not enough. Her assignment is to create a scene from the book in the form of a diorama -- a three-dimensional tableau with objects and a decorated background. That usually means a dressed-up shoe box.

    Teachers love dioramas. They let kids get creative and experience the lesson in visual and tactile ways. Some kids learn better that way.

    Zinovoy and other parents don't share their enthusiasm.

    When Zinovoy discusses dioramas, it sounds like stand-up comedy.

    Diorama Drama: "Will we get it done in time?"

    Deal-O-Rama Diorama: "That's where you play 'Let's make a deal' to finish the project."

    Death by Diorama: "This is where either parent or child ends up having a meltdown to finish the project."

    On a recent afternoon, the kitchen island at the center of the Zinovoy household was covered with wads of clay, wooden craft sticks, construction paper and a couple of recently purchased miniature vehicles.

    Gianna, a fourth-grader at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic School, was certainly involved. So was Mom -- carefully cutting sticks into stick figure people. And so was older sister Nicole, 11, who was smashing green clay to make the trees.

    After about an hour and a half, a plain shoe box was transformed into an exceptionally cool Claymation-style scene from the book.

    Gianna smiled. The project was done.

    "That wasn't bad; not like one of those Architectural Digest deals that take forever," Deb Zinovoy said, as she rushed off to 5-year-old Jarrod's soccer game.

    That project didn't even come close to the time she got up at 5 a.m. to put 56 curls in Nicole's hair for her report on Shirley Temple.

    Yes, she admits, she sometimes overdoes it.

    * * *

    Bob Orlopp says he can tell within 30 seconds whether a student was involved in his own project.

    "You always talk to the kid to see what they know," said Orlopp, the supervisor of science for Pinellas County schools.

    Oftentimes, children can show they know their stuff. In those cases, regardless of the project's appearance, a good grade is warranted.

    But the truth sometimes spills out.

    "Sometimes a kid will say, 'I don't know. Ask my dad,"' Orlopp said. "We have kids who cry because they just don't know about their own project."

    Sometimes parents unwittingly get sucked in. One artfully done project raises the stakes for everyone. Other parents try to keep up.

    "You don't want your daughter to be embarrassed," said Nancy Johnson. After being shocked to see the Smithsonian-like quality of other kids' work, Johnson admits she helped her daughter spice up her project. "We decided to compromise our principles."

    Teachers insist they don't make unreasonable demands. They just want to keep things interesting and stretch their students' abilities.

    Some teachers assign in-class projects, eliminating the issue of parental collaboration altogether. Others welcome it.

    "Some projects are designed knowing the parents will help," said Dale Jenrette, a science teacher at Bauder Elementary in Seminole. "So long as there's learning going on, that's the point."

    Orlopp said science teachers have a joke:

    "Science projects are our second try at teaching science to the parents. If they missed it when they were kids, we get them the second time around."

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