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'Parent academy' offers dividends to children

Coming soon to a school near you: a job-search seminar for parents while the kids play bingo to learn about better health.

This is how a random mid-week evening might look for families once Chris Spence, the new education director for the Toronto District School Board, brings his "parent academy" concept to the city's schools.

The idea, pioneered in Miami five years ago and soon to launch at Dr. Spence's former school board in Hamilton, sits high on the to-do list he unveiled this week. The rationale is simple: Engaged parents make for better students.

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"The research is pretty clear: When schools work together with families to support learning, children tend to succeed, not just in school but throughout life as well," Dr. Spence told reporters. "We have an unprecedented opportunity to move away from random acts of parental involvement to true, meaningful parent and community engagement."

In effect, schools would become de facto community centres for whole families, offering programs to help parents with their most pressing needs - from finding work and getting fit to understanding Facebook and navigating the school system.

"Our strategy is, first of all, to conduct a satisfaction survey and really get a temperature reading, and use that as a benchmark for some of the work that we need to undertake," Dr. Spence said.

At the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, officials have spent the past year doing just that, and are about to roll out Dr. Spence's vision, called Focus 4 Family, at various schools after a brief pilot project.

"We sent a survey out for what [programs]parents are interested in, and it was our most successful return survey," said Robert Blundson, a special assignment teacher who oversees the program. Hamilton, with 50,000 students, received 5,000 responses from parents, who chose from a list of 24 program offerings.

Recreational sports, nutrition and helping their children learn topped the list, but since results varied from school to school, programs will be targeted to where they are most wanted, Mr. Blundson said.

"There's no cookie-cutter model for this," he said. "You have to look at each of your different communities and be open and try to find something that's going to be successful."

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The programs are free of charge and school-based, so they require no rent, he said. The school board has enlisted outside agencies such as the public-health department, YMCA and immigrant-settlement groups to help run programs, while the board will organize carpools, give out transit tickets and in some cases provide cab fare to parents who need it. Funding comes from an Ontario Ministry of Education program to promote community use of school facilities.

In Florida's Miami-Dade County, academic scores and school ratings improved dramatically during the tenure of recently-departed schools superintendent Rudy Crew, pioneer of The Parent Academy and former chief of New York City's sprawling school system.

Dr. Crew, like Dr. Spence, "saw a need for parents to have an opportunity to learn how to become involved in the schools," said Anne Thompson, director of The Parent Academy. "There's so many obstacles for parents, whether it's language or the economy or the fact that they're working several jobs, or the fact that they just don't feel comfortable in the school setting."

The Miami program, funded with private and corporate donations, costs about $1-million a year to run, a modest sum given the board's 340,000 students (Toronto's public system has about 250,000).

Mr. Blundson said Torontonians should be optimistic, based on Dr. Spence's success with Boys 2 Men, a mentoring program he developed as a Toronto educator a decade ago, which remains wildly popular.

"You don't appreciate someone until they're not your boss any more. Then you're like, 'Wow, I miss this guy.' He's a phenomenal leader."

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