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Schools strive for 'no parent left behind'

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With schools increasingly held accountable for the performance of every student, the demand to partner with parents has intensified. School plays and fundraisers supported by moms, dads, and grandparents are still staples of American public schools. But in the spirit of "it takes a village," families now might find such activities paired with a workshop on test-prep or a briefing on how to read state accountability reports.

When "no child left behind" became the mantra of federal education officials five years ago, it was touted as a way to empower parents to ensure their children received a good education. If schools are chronically failing academically, children can receive tutoring or transfer. But there have been barriers to parents taking advantage of those offers. In 2003-04, only 1 percent of eligible students chose to transfer, and only 19 percent participated in supplemental services such as tutoring, according to a recent report by Appleseed, a nonprofit organization in Washington.

Such escape valves give parents leverage, but it's perhaps more important for family members to be brought in as allies as local schools plan improvement, experts say.

"The revolution of [the No Child Left Behind Act] is it really institutionalized parent involvement in schools in a way that says, 'Your contribution is more than just sending your kids and baking cookies,' " says Edwin Darden, director of education policy at Appleseed. But, he adds, "there's a long way to go in terms of parents really understanding fully what the rights and the opportunities are of No Child Left Behind." The vision of the law, the group reported, "remains unfulfilled."

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) actually requires schools that need improvement to inform and involve parents in their strategies, but federal and state monitors haven't been paying much attention to that part of the law, says Anne Henderson, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and coauthor of "Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships."

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