Tahlequah Daily Press

November 8, 2012

Parents involved in the learning curve

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Education is most associated with reading, writing, arithmetic, classrooms, teachers and textbooks. But the first “teacher” a child has contact with is a parent.

Nov. 8 is National Parents as Teachers Day, which encourages parents to take an active role in their children’s education from birth.

Tahlequah Public Schools participates in the Oklahoma Parents As Teachers program, designed to give children the best possible start in life. The voluntary program is based on the philosophy that parents are their children’s first and most important teachers. It’s available to parents with children from birth to age 3.

Greenwood Elementary School Parent Liaison Nikki Molloy is also a mother, and she participated in OPAT with her daughter.

“We met with coordinators once a month who gave us advice, activities and information that helped us make the transition into parenthood,” said Molloy. “They give you so much information on developmental milestones, physical milestones things to watch for that have to do with motor skills and fine motor skills. They also provide you with activities you and your child can do together to strengthen those skills.”

The goal of OPAT is to strengthen the capacity of parents to be effective first teachers. It’s designed to maximize a child’s overall development during the first three years of life.

Susan VanZant, principal at Greenwood Elementary School, said the site offers a parent liaison, but the first stop if a parent has a question should be the teacher.

“The teacher is always the first go-to person, especially with questions about curriculum,” said VanZant. “Our parent liaison serves as a connection for parents who may have questions about discipline or policies.”

VanZant stressed the importance of parental involvement throughout children’s academic pursuits.

“There is an obvious difference in children who have participated in activities with their parents from an early age,” said VanZant.

Molloy agreed, and said teachers offer various ways for parents to strike up conversations with their students about school.

“We have notebooks that go home every evening, and they usually have places where a parent can sign off, saying they’ve checked the work, or read a chapter, things like that,” said Molloy.  “This is an important connection to make, because once students reach fourth grade, the work gets hard and they need to have those skills in place.”

Staff at Greenwood also try to engage parents by hosting specialty nights, including a “Math Night” last year.

“We had a speaker who was very informative,” said VanZant. “She made us think about math in ways we hadn’t before. For instance, she talked about counting cows in a field, and instead of counting them by 1’s, to group them in pairs. It provided a practical application to the concept.”

VanZant encourages parents to ask questions about their children’s education.

“Any time they need to ask questions, we are here to help,” said VanZant.

Some parents choose to educate their children at home, embracing the “teach from birth” approach.

Renée LaCombe is among that number. She is the mother of two sons: Tristan 15, and Evan, 13.

“I began teaching them both as soon as I laid eyes on them,” said LaCombe. “Although Tristan was well into second- and third-grade curriculum before kindergarten, I sent him [to public school] for the experience. He really wasn’t exposed to any new academics, but he participated in a bilingual program that taught strictly in Spanish for half of the year, so the experience was enriching.”

After kindergarten, Tristan was home-schooled first through third grades, then went to public school for fourth grade, and continued to home-school every other year through seventh grade, after which he remained in public school.

LaCombe said her Evan, her younger son, had a different experience.

“He began going to preschool at age 3, because although we could see he was very smart, he was autistic and non-verbal,” said LaCombe.

“We sought assistance through a school that had a wonderful early intervention program in which Evan blossomed. He loved public school, where he thrived for three years, then he began home-schooling every other year through seventh grade, and is now attending Woodall Elementary, where he is having rewarding experiences, especially in algebra, science and art.”

LaCombe was prompted to teach her children at home after she experienced “wasted” classroom time as a student teacher while attending San Diego State University.

“I student taught in a district that was held in high esteem; it was a ‘good’ school,” she said. “During that experience, I was astounded at how much time I saw wasted in the classroom. By ‘wasted,’ I mean most of the children were disengaged, simply on hold, while one or two children were being dealt with for behavioral issues, or the teacher was attempting to bring them up to speed with the majority of the class. I was disheartened at how little time was left for a child to explore his personal interests after he was put through the rigors of institutionalized education. I was afraid that a child’s natural curiosity and hunger to learn would be squelched by being forced into a generic mold.”

LaCombe said that because she’s taught her sons at home, they understand education is their responsibility and is a part of everyday life.

“It is not something that is done to you by a teacher; it is not something that happens from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for nine months out of the year,” she said. “However, if you do not feel like studying a particular topic at a given time, study what you are interested in. Need a break? Take one. It’s your own personal responsibility.”

LaCombe believes the benefits her children have received through their unique educational experience include fostering a natural curiosity and desire to learn.

“They have gained so much life experience helping us build our home and my husband’s hangar at the airport, and helping him work on airplanes,” said LaCombe. “Along with all of these activities, we teach. They’ve been exposed to engineering, computer programming, robotics, aerodynamics and more. We would not have had time to delve into these activities had they been ‘busy’ all day at school.”

Having spent so much time with her children, LaCombe finds the concept of parental uninvolvement foreign, and offers advice to parents who choose public school.

“I have a very difficult time understanding parents who are not involved in their child’s education,” she said. “Open up their books and read them yourself. Be ready when they need help with homework. Look at the graded work they bring home, and help them learn from their mistakes. Don’t know the answers? Get on the Internet. Go to school and speak with their teachers, even if they are doing well. Your child could have issues at school that he doesn’t share with you at home.”