Tips for Success
When it comes to education, our children are in trouble. Up to a quarter of them don’t finish high school. Of those who do and go on to college, more than four in ten need remedial classes. That’s hardly a surprise given the results of a recent U.S. Department of Education study, which found that just one in three eighth-graders scored at grade level in reading, math or science.
There are plenty of reasons for all that failure — from a stultifying school bureaucracy to reform-resistant teachers unions to poorly qualified teachers. But some students — even those in the worst schools — do manage to succeed. Are they simply smarter? Or do they have some hidden character trait that gives them an edge?
Dozens of studies have shown that the most consistent indicators of student achievement — more than income or social status — are the home environment and parental involvement. The ultimate example: the demonstrable success of homeschooled students (there are now more than 1 million in the country). One recent Columbia University study found homeschoolers outscoring all other groups on college entrance exams.
But homeschooled children aren’t the only ones with involved parents. Academically successful kids in traditional public and charter schools also get lots of support at home. We visited three families facing different circumstances to find out exactly how they’ve managed to raise A+ kids.
It All Begins With Books
A slender, self-possessed 15-year-old, Leila Giles has accomplished things that would make any parent proud. Tae kwon do trophies sit on her bureau, alongside others for diving. A Girl Scout Silver Award honors her work in producing public service announcements about water conservation for local TV. During the winter, she served as a page in the Virginia House of Delegates. And last year she scored in the 99th percentile on a national standardized achievement test.
But there’s one thing Leila has never done: gone to school. She and her 11-year-old brother, Adam, are being educated in their Vienna, Virginia, home. Their mother, 44-year-old Celeste Land, a former translator for the federal government, is their main teacher. Their father, Kent Giles, 47, who works at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., joins the ongoing family tutorial every evening at dinnertime.
While Land knows what her kids should learn — as measured by nationally recognized achievement tests — she focuses mainly on something else.
“My job is to be on the lookout for opportunities,” she says, “to see them and present them to my children.” As a homeschooling parent, she has learned to view the whole world as an educational laboratory. And it all begins with how the home is set up.
“We’ve always made sure we had engaging things throughout the house,” Land says. World maps hang on several walls. Scrabble and other brain-teasing games cram the shelves. A huge supply of LEGOs helped Adam discover a love for building. A wealth of art supplies sparked Leila’s passion for drawing.
Most critical of all, there are books — hundreds and hundreds of books, lining shelves and resting on tables. Their parents began reading to Leila and Adam early, instilling a love of books by example, not pressure. “We let them develop as readers at their own pace,” Land says. “Leila was a very early reader; Adam started reading much later.” And books are still central to the family’s life.
“Before a trip to Boston, we all read Johnny Tremain together,” Land says. And once in the city, they sought out sites mentioned in the grade school classic about a teenage apprentice during the American Revolution.
This book-centric approach is spot-on, say education experts. “One of the most important things you can do is read to your child and encourage reading,” says former West Virginia governor Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C. An inability to read well early can hamper a child’s school success for years, with sadly predictable results. High schoolers in the lowest quartile in academic achievement are 20 times more likely to drop out than their peers in the highest quartile.
Leila and Adam couldn’t drop out if they tried, because of their parents’ commitment to making the larger world a classroom. Along with educational travel like the Boston trip, the family takes in museum exhibits and plays. When Leila decided she wanted to be in Girl Scouts, Land started a troop. She led Adam’s 4-H club, where he came to love woodworking.
Both parents are careful not to impose their own interests on their children. They’re more concerned with giving them every available tool. “It’s about letting them be who they are,” says Land. From the way Leila and Adam are performing, it’s also about helping them discover all they can be.
Taking a Hard Line
Bonnie Hernandez, 41, a single mother of three, lives in public housing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A minimum-wage cook’s assistant at a Head Start program, she dropped out of school in the ninth grade and only lately got back to studying for her general equivalency diploma. But she hasn’t let her own academic struggles keep her kids from succeeding.
Exhibit A: her daughter Jennifer, who, Hernandez says, graduated from a city public high school among the top students in her class, and scored in the 98th percentile on New York’s rigorous math Regents Exam. Now 20, she plans to attend a local college.
The brick building where the Hernandezes live may look bleak and forbidding from the outside, but step inside the three-bedroom apartment the family calls home and you enter a world that’s cozy and inviting. One thing that keeps it that way is Hernandez’s strict set of rules. They include the basics: no drugs, and no sleeping around (she’s got a pretty good idea of what other kids are doing). She’s strict in other ways. When her youngest son, Joshua, 13, had a chance to attend a high school in a distant part of the city, she balked at the idea of his traveling so far on his own. Instead, she insisted he enroll in school closer to home. Now, he says, “she watches me out the window.”
She never stops watching. “I try to monitor as much as I can,” says Hernandez. “I am nosy. I will go through your drawers. I will go under your mattress. Definitely. I want to know. I want to know what’s bothering you.”
Hernandez understands that being deeply involved in her children’s
lives has made a difference in their education. To do it, she had to swallow her pride.
“There were things I was unable to help them with — homework. But I
wasn’t embarrassed,” she says. “I called people and said, ‘How can I do this?’ The moment you close your mind from embarrassment, you close it to knowledge.”
Hernandez, a poor reader herself, knew she had to get her kids reading early on to give them a chance. So she took them regularly to local public libraries. “I pushed it on them,” she says. “They had their library cards already at three years old.” At night, she read aloud to them despite being so tired “my head would drop.”
She also kept an eye out for recreation programs, and when she heard about an art program, she asked if she could get a discount by volunteering a few hours each week.
Recently Hernandez’s older son, 18-year-old Joey, got into trouble at school and started to dress in what Hernandez sniffs at as a “gangster” look. Her response: “You’re taking the space of someone who wants to make something of himself,” she says. This tough love may just be hitting the mark. Joey has begun working with disabled children, and recently told his mother how wonderful it was to be able to read to a third-grader who couldn’t read himself. Says Hernandez, “It felt like he was passing on a gift that I’d given him.”
Time to Take Charge
Susan Price knew something wasn’t right. Her younger daughter, Arianna, a fourth-grader in a Tucson private school, was getting excellent grades. But Price, a lawyer, always looked through the homework done by Arianna and her older daughter, Mirissa. Arianna’s math folder showed a distinct void, which made it look like she was actually having a problem with math. Price decided to investigate. When she visited the school, she says, she was not impressed with the teacher.
Price, 46, decided to spend the next six months tutoring Arianna and a classmate. She taught them not only fourth-grade math but also more advanced work. Visits to education supply stores kept her up to speed on materials and requirements. The following year, Arianna switched to a public school — and the rising fifth-grader scored so well that she qualified to take a sixth-grade math class.
Arianna and Mirissa are both maintaining A averages, and their mother’s intense involvement is a big reason why. The sisters, now 12 and 14, have moved on to a public charter school that Price investigated online at a site that offers report cards on the state’s public schools. It has proved to be a wonderful fit, especially because the school curriculum emphasizes math.
Price has always had input into her children’s learning. She and her husband, John, read to their daughters “all the time.” As a result, they became avid readers who take part in a local library’s book club each summer. The sisters also acquainted themselves with computers, starting at age three at their pre-school.
To Price, one of the most valuable things she does sounds so simple: She makes sure to pick the girls up after school each day. “That’s when they tell me everything that’s happening in their lives, during those drives home,” she says. And what does she do with the information and insights she
gets? “When we need to get involved,” she says, “we do.”