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Any educator will admit that parents are the curse and the blessing of his job.

Parental involvement. To most, it means joining the PTA or being a classroom volunteer. It means attending an occasional school board meeting and maybe - for those with strong opinions - taking the microphone and speaking to the board.It's a term some educators have dressed up as "shared governance." It means showing up at parent/teacher conferences and participating in committees that address boundary, curriculum and busing issues.

In Utah, and increasingly throughout the country, it also may mean going to court, to the press, or to lawmakers to drum up support and spread the word about education-related concerns.

Consider the following:

- This week, the father of a Utah County teenager filed a lawsuit challenging a Provo High School policy that keeps students with incomplete or failing grades out of extracurricular activities. Attorney John Musselman filed the suit when the school told his daughter she couldn't try out for the cheerleading squad because of attendance problems.

Musselman says the policy is discriminatory, inflexible and has a flawed appeals process. A 4th District Court judge granted a temporary restraining order that permits the girl to try out pending a hearing to evaluate the policy Monday.

- Last week, the Jordan Board of Education postponed a vote to determine next year's hazardous bus routes after an hour-plus presentation from a Sandy mother regarding safety concerns in her neighborhood.

"I don't want to be a complainer," said Judi Amthor, who has contacted numerous Sandy city and Jordan School District officials in her quest to get lights, semaphores or a crossing guard installed near Richard Road and Newcastle Drive. "I just want public-safety issues addressed."

- Parents packed Murray School District's Horizon Elementary April 23 in a dispute over whether a community center should be established at the school. The City Council had agreed to give the school district an $85,000 matching grant to build a 1,800-square-foot community center at the school.

The center would be used after hours by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Murray, and parents say they object to older, at-risk youths sharing the school building with young children.

Because of parent outcry, the City Council put the grant on hold and will evaluate it again later this month. The school board will decide whether to scrap the center after the City Council meeting and after it sees results of a straw poll to be conducted at the school.

- Riverton mom Debbie Johanson organized parents to protest Jordan School District's decision not to cover an agricultural ditch near a new elementary school. Under Johansen's direction, the group tapped local newspapers and television stations, complained to the school board and got Riverton's City Council involved.

After several months, the Jordan School District and Riverton eventually split the cost to get the waterway underground.

- A motion is still pending in federal court to amend the well-publicized case of West High student Rachel Bauchman, who, with her mom, sued Salt Lake School District over a repertoire of mostly Christian religious songs sung by the school's a cappella choir.

Rachel, who is Jewish, is the sole plaintiff in the current motion, but both her mother and father, Eric, have been outspoken in support of their daughter.

It's been about two decades since administrators and educators first began talking about "site-based management" and "shared governance" in reference to parental involvement in education.

On the heels of protests and student-rights platforms, children of the 1960s grew up, had kids and demanded a voice in the education process. Moms and dads wanted to help teachers choose textbooks, sex education materials; they wanted to help districts design policy on discipline, busing and school boundaries.

Nearly 20 years into this phenomenon - and with federal parental-rights legislation pending - Utah educators and parents are trying to feel their way through a process where their roles are no longer clearly defined.

Parents, who are criticized for doing too much or not enough in education, point the finger at schools, saying they do too little for students or take too many liberties.

As problems related to class sizes, money shortages and society's troubles grow in Utah and throughout the country, educators say they hear more frequently from parents who want to fashion school policy while their sons and daughters travel from K-12.

A `600-pound gorilla'

Nothing hammers home this struggle for control more than the federal Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act of 1995.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, is intended to protect parents from government intrusion and give them more say over things such as condom distribution, sex education and home schooling.

The bill, co-sponsored by Oklahoma Republican Rep. Steve Lar-gent, hopes to overcome state-court rulings that limit parents' authority and guarantees "parental liberty in a child's education, health care, punishment and religious training."

Michael Simpson, attorney for the National Education Association, says the legislation would "strap a 600-pound gorilla to the back of every public-school teacher in the country."

In the March edition of NEA Today, Simpson wrote that the proposed act would force public schools to provide their children with a customized education.

"That would include the right to opt in or out of any course they choose, require the adoption of a race- or religion-friendly curriculum, ban books, require the admission of their children to a par-tic-u-lar school or special program, and force the state to pay for private school tuition.

"Oh, by the way," Simpson writes, "if parents don't like what their children are being taught, they'd also be able to sue teachers and other school officials for money damages and attorneys' fees."

Douglas F. Bates, attorney for the Utah State Office of Education, says he fears the federal legislation would again wrest control from local school boards and state courts.

"I think it would be disastrous," he said.

"It's based on the assumption that every parent is a loving, caring parent, and that's not happening. I think the ramifications of it could be very extreme."

Locally, parental concerns also mushroom into state legislation from time to time.

Most recently, State Rep. David Bresnahan, R-West Jordan, introduced a resolution similar to the federal Parental Rights Act in the 1996 session of the Utah Legislature, but the House gutted the resolution's enacting clause.

A controversy about closing Webster Elementary in the Granite School District prompted Sen. Millie Peterson, D-West Valley, to introduce a bill in the most recent legislative session to divide the state's largest school districts.

Last April parents balked when the Granite Board of Education voted to close Magna's aging Webster Elementary School.

No one spoke against the closure during a citizens committee meeting on the issue or during the school board's public hearing. But parents complained they were not adequately represented because of the size of the district, Peterson said at the time. The district, the largest in the state, serves more than 78,000 students.

"I've had far more constituents call me about this than any other bill I've sponsored," Peterson said at the time.

The bill died in committee.

Sen. Charles Stewart, R-Provo, sought legislation requiring a public vote on school-boundary changes, also a manifestation of a local school dispute. He later withdrew the bill.

Parental involvement defined

"Under shared governance, school district personnel and community join to share the decisionmaking process which so vitally effects the welfare of today's students.

"When parents, teachers and staff are participating actively in the governing of schools, we believe several advantages may accrue." - Salt Lake District's manual on shared governance.

Parental involvement is encouraged in school-district mission statements and Gov. Mike Leavitt's Centennial Schools program. However, parental roles are largely misunderstood, says Brent Asay, chairman of the West High School Community Council.

"The problem comes into play when everyone wants parent involvement in the schools but no one will define what that is," Asay said.

"As a parent, I'd like to ask Gov. Leavitt, `Do you want me to pass out cupcakes or be involved in the governance of the school?' That's what needs to be defined."

While he believes parents attempt to work within the shared-governance system, some have unrealistic expectations. Others tire of the bureaucracy and seek more immediate results by going to the media, trying to meet with the district superintendent or hiring an attorney.

"A lot of those people are simply accustomed to dealing in the legal realm, so it's a natural place for them to turn," said attorney Bates.

Conflicts over a student's discipline can be the most antagonistic.

In the Davis School District, Superintendent Richard Kendell gets four to 15 calls a day about incidents where students are disciplined, suspended, injured on the playground or involved in other miscellaneous incidents.

"We don't think of this as parent involvement in the normal sense," Kendell said.

"The rest of these are kind of client concerns. These are people who come in and say, `The system isn't working for me' . . . It's not uncommon for an area director to get a call early in the morning and spend the next eight to 10 hours on the problem."

It's also not uncommon for irate parents or parent groups to demand to speak to the superintendent or school board president.

"They're impatient with it," Kendell said. "They want the issue resolved and resolved now."

Usually such folks can be persuaded to speak to a principal or area director, but "once every couple of weeks" Kendell is forced to meet with them.

Parents make it clear they won't drop the issue if not satisfied with the district's response, Kendell says.

"It is almost a given that when parents call these days they threaten to go to the press."

Daphne Williams, supervisor of community involvement for the Salt Lake City School District, says one of greatest challenges schools face is encouraging low-income families to take a greater role in their children's education.

"Parents whose kids go to high-risk schools and come from low-income families are reluctant and reticent to get involved. Many of these families have had negative experiences with schools and their education. They don't look at school as a very user-friendly place. We're having to make extra efforts to include that population," Williams said.

Salt Lake officials visit homes, community clubs and, on occasion, even a church to cultivate parental involvement.

"Slowly you get them into the school building. It might be through a cultural activity, but you do something to help them start to get comfortable with the school setting," she said.

When the schools hold activities, many provide food and child care to encourage participation of parents who might not otherwise attend.

More often, schools hear from well-heeled parents who have tools at their disposal that teachers and school administrators do not - threatening legal action, going to the press or demanding meetings with principals or superintendents.

"You certainly don't want parental involvement that's going to work against the system and work against what we're there for. Our product is the student, and we try to produce a citizen who can contribute to society. If parents have their own agenda, it doesn't always mesh with what's best for their child and education," she said.

"Parents have to trust that the people we have in the system are capable of making good decisions for their children."

What drives parents

Last fall, the parent of a Layton elementary school pupil went to the police and to the press when she perceived her son was disciplined improperly by having "time outs" in a small room used for tutoring and other activities. She described the room as a "closet" and the discipline procedure as akin to child abuse.

Various news outlets decided the complaints were without foundation and did nothing on the story, but a local newspaper picked it up in a prominent feature that had district staff scrambling for damage control.

"That's what the headline looked like: `Student confined to cell,' " the Davis superintendent, Kendell, said. "But when you look into it you find there was a long pattern of disruptive behavior" on the part of the student and reasonable efforts to control it on the part of school administrators who were at their wits' end.

The October headline, which actually read, "Mother calls `closet' punishment abuse" is one example of how issues get skewed when the media, especially television, gets involved, said Kendell.

"The video folks need a quick (sound) bite," he said. "They will pick up on a sensationalist story, do a few minutes at noon, and then vanish" instead of digging in to investigate all sides of an issue.

Since the controversy, the Layton student has been moved to another school. It was his fourth transfer within the Davis School District. The case is still alive in the courts and more litigation is likely, Kendell said.

Most cases don't go that far. Many times, administrators say, the problem is based in a lack of communication.

Last year a father called district offices complaining that his son's junior high principal picked on him and singled him out for discipline and punishment. The boy had been suspended from school.

It wasn't until the father, area director and principal met that the father discovered his son had brought a gun to school.

"He didn't know," Kendell said. "You get a kid coming home early. The parent asks why. He says he was kicked out. Why? `The principal doesn't like me.' "

The Davis School District eliminated busing for more than 4,000 students when it decided to stop subsidizing hazardous-busing routes last year, and concerned parents protested.

Kendell says he met with various parent groups several times a week for eight to 10 weeks.

Ironically, it was a task force including many parents that recommended the changes in the first place.

"It depends on the issue," Kendell said. "Some issues bring out a lot of parent activism."

Busing and school-boundary changes always get people up in arms, he says. Discipline, attendance standards and special education issues follow closely behind.

"Administrators always have the best of intentions, but sometimes parents do know best," said Alpine Board of Education member Marilyn Kofford. She and her fellow board members have taken flak over recent boundary changes in new district schools.

Kofford was once an angry parent, too, working on air-quality problems in the Alpine Elementary School classroom satellite. Students and teachers complained that they became ill because of strange odors coming from the satellite's 12 portable classrooms.

After two years of complaints, the district added larger air ventilation ducts to the satellite, which alleviated the problem.

"We were really fighting for the kids to have fresh air. It was frustrating because we just wanted them to fix it," said Kofford, who decided to run for the board after the incident.

She's also been stuck between administrators and angry parents, having served as chairwoman for the committee that helped name Mountain Ridge Junior High School.

The Alpine Board of Education voted to name the school Mountain Ridge rather than Highland, even though a ballot by residents favored the Highland name. Kofford and the committee recommended both names to the school board but said they had reservations about the Highland name because of questions about the balloting's validity.

"I felt really badly about it. In some ways it helped divide some communities we were hoping to unite," she said, adding that she believes the school board made the right decision.

Sandy Packard, a mother of six, is so concerned about building safety and discipline policy, she hopes to win a seat on the Provo Board of Education.

She's made several appeals and presentations to the board as a concerned parent, and says she hasn't had much success working from the opposite side of the dais. She faces board President Ken Matheson in the upcoming election.

Packard said she believes a lawsuit filed against the school district that challenges its attendance policy illustrates bad decisionmaking by the board. She also is concerned that the district ignores its substitute teacher policy.

"It's because of all these other things but largely because when this (disregard of policy) happens over and over again, they get sued for it and there go all the funds that should be going for the education."

Going in backward

Colleen Minson knows parental involvement from a number of perspectives. She's served in PTA, worked as a community volunteer and served a term on the Salt Lake City Board of Education during the closure of South High School.

As the board debated the school closure and boundary changes to create three high schools that would each serve diverse populations, Minson discovered that some of the issues the closure had stirred could be better addressed in individual neighborhoods.

"The issues that impact kids are very complex and broad. To address the risk factors, you have to go outside the school," Minson said.

Minson decided against running for a second term. "I decided to go home and see if I could make a difference on a smaller level," Minson said. "Plus, at that time I had six kids and I had to get serious about being a mom."

Unlike many parents who work their way up the PTA hierarchy en route to seeking election to the local school board, Minson went straight to elected office after volunteering one year at her child's elementary school. When her four-year term on the school board ended, she got involved in PTA. "I guess I did it backwards," she said, laughing. "But in some ways, maybe it was better. I didn't go in with an agenda other than wanting to be effective and see the needs of the kids and schools were met. I even ran against a guy who's now a general authority (for the LDS Church)."

As tumultuous as the South High decision was, the issues facing Minson's Glendale community were downright deadly. A once pin-neat neighborhood was defaced with graffiti and gang-related shootings were common-place. Her children barely escaped injury when a drive-by shooter sprayed bullets into the front yard of a residence where a number of children were playing on a summer night.

"I said to myself, `This cannot go on.' One of the shooters was home the next morning (after a shooting incident). The court at that time had not developed a response to violent juvenile crime. But I could see the kind of thinking that was pushing kids into that kind of activity. They came from very dysfunctional families. They were very dysfunctional. By seventh or eighth grade, these kids were basically out of the system. What we found what changed what happened in our neighborhood was reconnecting with our kids. We started having a neighborhood activity night," she said.

"Within two to three weeks, we had a neighborhood again. It was amazing. It was so simple. It was just getting together and building a structure."

While she still sees a need for parents to be involved in systemic change, Minson believes some of the most important contributions of parents start in the home. The Minsons subscribe to a family constitution, including a bill of rights and responsibilities. "For me, that's really important. I had four kids riding the bus to East each morning with a bunch of gang bangers. If they didn't have a pretty clear sense of who they were, they were pretty vulnerable."

To strengthen family ties, the Minsons read together each night. "There's things you do in a family that create bonding and attachment so your children have a picture where they come from," Min-son said.

Minson now oversees a $2 million federal grant to create neighborhood-based teams to address gang violence and other issues affecting at-risk children and communities.

"The most powerful things that have to happen are in the family and your immediate environment, your neighborhood and the school setting."

Ultimate parental involvement

Ben Crowder, 12, can write computer programs in three languages.

If he attended traditional school, he'd be a seventh-grader. But because his schooling isn't bound by the constraints and standards of a school system, his mother figures progress a little differently.

His grammar, writing and reading skills are those of a high-schooler. In math, he's about average, maybe a year ahead. He's read "The Odyssey" by Homer and will represent Utah as the state's top speller in the National Spelling Bee contest in late May.

Ben's mother, Tina Crowder, took responsibility for the boy's education when he turned 5. The two showed up to enroll in school, and Ben tested at the fourth-grade level.

He was reading encyclopedias and doing math by then, his mother said. "They told me to keep him home," Crowder said.

Not all of Crowder's seven children are as advanced as her first, but Crowder teaches them all at home. She may spend only two hours per day on schoolwork but believes the education and learning environment she provides at the family's Orem household beats anything the school district might deliver.

"The real learning begins after schoolwork," she said. Her kids are voracious readers; they participate in community theaters; they take dance, violin and piano lessons; they work on the computer.

The Crowders are part of a group of 6,000 families in Utah who have asked for the responsibility to educate their kids at home. In Utah, home-schooled children are completely independent of the public school system: They aren't tested or evaluated by school districts.

Throughout the country, concerns about the state of education have fueled an increase in the number of students who study at home.

The U.S. Department of Education estimates there are about 500,000 home-schooled kids, but the Home School Legal Defense Association puts the number at 1 million and growing by 20 percent annually.

"You can't get any more involved than having them home," Crowder said. "That's the ultimate."

Crowder's children behave a lot better, get along with each other and are able to avoid negative peer influence, she says.

"We get to instill our own values, not values of curriculum. It's hard to teach science and history without mentioning God and the creation, if that's what you believe."

It's important to have control over the moral and religious input to the children, she says.

Ben spends about six hours per day preparing for the spelling bee. He studies Latin and Greek roots and prefixes and any unusual words he can find. He has a dictionary and stacks of lists of words used in past spelling bees.

He and his mom quiz each other, because Tina Crowder needs practice too - she's competing in the parents' version of the spelling bee.

"It's something we're doing together."

Deseret News staff writers Alan Edwards, Jeff Vice and Sharon Haddock contributed to this story.