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    Parents go back to school for kids

    Schools all over the bay area are teaching parents what their children learn so they can incorporate academics into everyday life.

    [Times photo: Bill Serne]
    LaCrecia Wright, left, a guidance counselor at Bay Point Middle School in St. Petersburg, works with eighth-grader Jessica Burks and her mother, Ruth Burks Woodland, recently.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001


    Ruth Burks Woodland stared at the computer, incredulous that she was being asked to use "math terms" to explain how she planned to solve the equation.

    "I just can't explain it in my words?" she asked Bay Point Middle School guidance counselor LaCrecia Wright. "What happened to plain old math?"

    Math, and school in general, has changed a lot since today's parents were students.

    Who remembers how to solve an algebraic equation or write expository essays with flawless grammar? Most parents didn't learn the same way their children are learning now, and so they don't understand educational jargon important for homework or class projects. Most took standardized tests, but not ones that carry so much weight or require the same preparation as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

    So, an increasing number of Tampa Bay area schools are inviting parents back to class -- and not only for meet-and-greet open houses, parenting workshops or general seminars on reading and math.

    More and more schools are teaching parents the same skills that teachers and students are taught, including problem-solving strategies and note-taking skills. Parents are rolling up their sleeves to solve math equations and test their own reading comprehension. In many cases, they are doing the work alongside their kids.

    "I think all parents want to help their children," said Pam Poore, a language arts resource teacher at Brooksville Elementary School in Hernando County. "They just don't always know what to do. In the past when we had open houses, it was more a social get-to-know-each-other and look over the children's work. What we're offering now is help for the parents."

    Brooksville Elementary has been offering parent workshops for several years. As time passes, they are growing more frequent and attendance is increasing. Like other schools, though, Brooksville wishes more parents could attend, but many parents work nights or two jobs.

    The classes give parents strategies for incorporating academics into everyday activities, like spontaneous math questions at the grocery store or while measuring laundry detergent. Parents are taught to ask their children how to approach solving a problem, not just ask for the answer.

    Amy Anderson, who runs the school's family center, said the classes tend to de-stress students and parents, who often feel as much angst during FCAT season as their children. Students took the writing test last month, but the reading and math tests are later this month.

    "I've had parents come into my family center shaking because they were really scared," Anderson said. "You've got kids doing things in fourth and fifth grade that we used to do in middle school."

    Lealman Avenue Elementary School in St. Petersburg has family fun night once a month. Students come with their parents, and sometimes siblings, for dinner and hands-on activities about the FCAT, writing and math. Another program is once a week for eight weeks, with parents and students practicing communication skills.

    Principal Carlyn Hallin said the programs are eye-opening for parents, who didn't realize what their children were doing in school and welcome tips about being better helpers.

    "There's a lot of research that even one parent visit to a school improves achievement," Hallin said.

    Northwest Elementary School in Pasco County has monthly family nights, but it also delivers help to parents and students at home. About 20 families have computers at home and are part of a program that requires parents and students to work together, 30 minutes a night, on reading and math.

    Up to three times a year at Clearwater High School, achievement specialist Suzetta Furlong condenses a curriculum usually reserved for teachers into a four-hour workshop for parents. The subject is learning strategies, and the parents are expected to take notes and then practice the kinds of skills their children learn.

    Pinellas' math supervisors travel around the county, visiting schools to give two-hour crash courses in math. Suzanne Davis, Pinellas' secondary math supervisor, teaches parents that math isn't all computation these days -- the emphasis now is problem-solving and concept-building. She reviews graduation requirements and the format of the math FCAT.

    "There is a lot of math anxiety out there with parents," Davis said. "It's socially acceptable out there for parents to say they weren't good at math, but it's important for parents to talk positively."

    Denise Byrd didn't even know exactly what her son was learning in eighth-grade math until a recent Saturday, when she sat down at a computer at Bay Point Middle School in St. Petersburg. Her son, Nathaniel, 14, sat beside her.

    Eventually, to lure more parents, Bay Point hopes to add a GED class to its Saturday offerings. For now, administrators are pleased to see the kind of progress that one mom and one son make when they work together.

    Nathaniel said his mom, who is taking college classes, is pretty good with graphs. He does pretty well with fractions. While taking a practice math FCAT together, they argued and discussed and did computations on scratch paper, laughing all the while.

    "I help her, and she helps me," Nathaniel said. "So we're both learning."

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