Sunday, November 9, 2003

Parents learning the scores

Training tells what school tests mean, how to help

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

In about a week, Kentucky will announce which schools are performing poorly under a new federal law.

The information will be important but confusing. About 100 parents in Northern Kentucky are well-equipped to get to the bottom of it.

They are graduates of the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership, which teaches parents how to interpret test data and use it to prod and improve their children's schools. Since 1997, the institute has trained more than 1,000 parent leaders, including about 100 in Northern Kentucky.

"I loved it. I wish more parents would do it," says Karen Costello, mother of a fifth-grader at R.C. Hinsdale Elementary School in Edgewood.

Costello completed the six-day training last year, when her daughter attended Arnett Elementary in Erlanger.

Then the family moved. Costello had the option of keeping her child at Arnett, but using her new skills, she looked up Hinsdale's test scores and discovered it was doing just as well.

"I found the training fabulous," Costello says.

And because of the new federal law known as No Child Left Behind, such training is more important than ever.

The school-performance data that Kentucky officials soon will release is required under No Child Left Behind. It's essentially the same information Kentuckians already receive every year, only more of it and with more serious consequences.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools must test students in every grade; in the past, they skipped some years. And now, if a school's scores fall below certain standards and that school receives federal Title I funding, it must offer students the option of transferring.

That's a lot for busy families to absorb.

For most people, test scores are a personal issue. They want to know, "How did my child do?" says Jeff Volter, a Covington school administrator.

If parents knew more about their schools' strengths and weaknesses, they might be more inspired to get involved, Volter says.

That's the idea behind the Commonwealth Institute of Parent Leadership, sponsored by the Lexington-based Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

Parent leaders attend the training for free. In a fun, relaxed way, they learn all about their children's schools. One tool: An inch-thick report on their school's test scores, by subject, grade level and type of student.

All this information is already public, but people don't usually see it in such detail. Through the institute, parents learn not only how their school does overall, but also how its minority, disabled and low-income students perform.

"At times, you can almost feel the air being sucked out of the room when they realize children at that school are being left behind, and that maybe their own children are in that group," says Bev Raimondo, director of the institute.

After the information is presented, parents discuss how it can be used to improve the school. They choose a problem area - low math scores, for instance - and create a project. They learn ways to involve other parents. And they make a two-year commitment to the project.

In Northern Kentucky, parent Phil Wiseman zeroed in on science scores at Kenton Elementary School. He arranged for an extensive audit of the way science was taught at the school and lobbied for hands-on lab space, says Maria Kenner, a Prichard Committee employee based in Northern Kentucky.

At Holmes High School in Covington, parent Doreen Baker came up with parent-teacher conferences that are led by students. Six teachers volunteered to test the idea last year. Now it has been expanded to the entire school.

At Arnett Elementary, Costello and another institute graduate, Mary Phillips, designed a program called "Blast from the Past" to address arts-and-humanities scores in the fifth grade.

The children are studying seven time periods in American history, and the parents have arranged for crafts, art projects, period costumes and special presentations to expand their learning. Other parents have been recruited to help, Costello says. One man brought in Native American items for the children to see. Another volunteer is making a time machine.

"I wanted to be an involved parent," Costello says. "You want to send your kids to a good school."

For more information on the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership, call Kenner at 859-363-8903 or check the Web site at


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