The Coastal Post - September, 1996

Back To School

BY RICHARD W. RILEY

U.S. Secretary of Education

Now that kids are going back to school, it's a good time to ask: Where do you have to live to find good schools?

Do you have to live in a wealthy suburb? Do you have to head for the big cities? Should you go to a university town?

The answer is: Good schools can be found anywhere in America. You can find them in the inner-city, in the suburbs, and in rural towns. That's what Money magazine discovered when it went looking for America's 100 best school districts. The results of the search can be found in the January 1996 issue, and it's an article that every parent, educator, and citizen who cares about education should read.

"Money isn't everything," declared Money. The districts that made the list enjoyed widespread community support and a high degree of parental involvement, and many were in areas where the average home costs less than the U.S. median.

The fact that good schools can be found anywhere—so long as parents and communities are willing to work for them—is good news for every citizen. We all have a stake in quality education, even those of us who don't have children in school. Strong schools build strong communities, and we all want that.

Because parental and community involvement are so important to education, the U.S. Department of Education and the National Partnership for Family Involvement in Education are launching an important initiative to coincide with back-to-school time. It's called "America Goes Back to School: Get Involved." This is the second year for this initiative, and I would like to invite you and every citizen to participate.

"America Goes Back to School: Get Involved!" asks parents, grandparents, neighbors, educators, students, and all community members to work together to achieve these goals: Making schools safer, more disciplined, and drug-free; putting computers into classrooms; improving reading, making sure academic standards are high; preparing young people for careers; and making college more accessible. A free kit is available that offers lots of good ideas for achieving these goals in your community. Many of these ideas have succeeded in helping communities like yours to improve their schools. Just call the U.S. Department of Education a 1-800-USA-LEARN and ask for the "America Goes Back to School" activities kid.

Until it arrives in your mailbox, here are a few tips to get you started.

• Parents: You can make the biggest difference in your children's education. Research shows that when parents are involved in helping their children learn, good things happen. Children get better grades, behave better in class, and are more likely to go to college. So here's what parents can do: Volunteer for school activities and stay in regular touch with teachers. Read to your very young children, and share books with your older children. Limit TV to no more than two hours on a school night. And talk with your youngsters about the values you want them to have and about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

• Employers: Remember that quality education is critical to producing a quality workforce. Many businesses offer leave and/or flex-time to their employees to allow them to volunteer in schools and to give parents the time to participate in their children's school activities. These" family-friendly" businesses have been rewarded with higher worker productivity. Business people can also provide work-study opportunities and internships and apprenticeships for students, and help define the skills, knowledge, and work habits needed for success in today's challenging workplace.

• Community members: If you're in a community, cultural, religious, law enforcement or other neighborhood group or organization, you can make a big difference, too. Work with the schools to offer after-school and summer enrichment programs and homework centers. Establish computer labs in neighborhood centers. Create safe corridors for children going to school. And encourage your local paper to report positive stories about young people.

• Schools: Schools can't do the job alone these days, and teachers and principals should reach out and make parents and community members their partners. Educators can use the phone, newsletters, home visits, and E-mail to keep parents informed and part of the education team. They can take advantage of community learning resources. They can meet with parents at the beginning of the school year to agree on goals and responsibilities. Most important, they can make parents feel welcome in the school and include them in decision-making.

Southern Illinois University President Ted Sanders has summed it all up best: "If schools are operating at maximum efficiency, they are responsible for about 40 to 50 percent of what a child learns. The other 50 to 60 percent of learning comes from the family and the community."

President Sanders is one of the four co-chairs of "America Goes Back to School: Get Involved!" The others are Tipper Gore, the wife of Vice President Al Gore; Joan Dykstra, the president of the National PTA; and Bo Jackson, the actor, businessman, and 1985 Heisman Trophy winner for his great accomplishments in college football.

We're proud to have them. We're also proud to have the many thousands of citizens who have already joined us. And we'll be proud to have you, too and everyone in your community. Join us and help build a better future for our students, our families, and for all of America.