A Utah psychologist has a formula for successful students, and it isn't expensive nor does it rely on beefing up curriculum.
Dr. T. Lee Burnham sees schools and parents working together, concentrating on the "human side" as the road to success in the schools. And that human approach can take many forms, from abandoning bell-curve grading so any student who masters the material can earn an "A" to supportive parents who, with teachers, draw up contracts outlining the responsibilities of teacher, parent and child in the learning process."We can make a difference without spending a whole lot of money," said Burnham, director of the Rocky Mountain Counseling Center.
He spoke at a daylong "School Success Conference" for parents, teachers and administrators. It was co-sponsored by the Deseret News and Utah State Office of Education.
The conference was also the kick-off for "Family Focus: Read to Succeed," a program aimed at helping parents foster their children's reading skills by using the newspaper. Members of the Deseret News Newspaper in Education Department trained workshop leaders, who will carry the information back to their schools and work with parents of children in grades kindergarten through three.
In his keynote address, Burnham cited several examples where the schools or parents haven't used a human approach, so they failed to meet the individual needs of students.
The psychologist is also director of the Pineapple Project, a work-study program that takes teens to work in Hawaii's pineapple fields but also provides them with their necessary high school courses in the evenings. The program takes both successful and struggling students.
For years, the program had trouble getting credit for its courses because of hassles over credits between school districts. Finally, it was accredited through the Hawaii Education Department,he said.
Burnham related how one student had his high school graduation in jeopardy for one-half credit because a school district wouldn't combine two physical education credits.
"We have principals, administrators and counselors so interested in protecting their own turf that they can't meet the needs of kids," he said.
Burnham said parents and teachers also fail to meet children's needs when they fail to interact with them in a meaningful way. He cited studies reporting parents spend only 17 minutes daily interacting with their kids.
In the Pineapple Project, supervisors, who serve as both bosses and parents, spend 24 hours a day and find their charges soon begin to talk freely about their lives. A few have related cases of child abuse that have remained a secret for years, the psychologist said.
"So many of them are living in an interpersonal vacuum. They are not in good interpersonal relationships with adults," he said.
He told of a bright, talented student, whom he treated, who had tried to kill himself. No one could understand why, so he asked the teen for a reason, pointing out the boy's numerous successes. Burnham said the response was telling.
"He said, `So what if I get good grades? When it comes right down to it, who really cares about any of it?'
"That was the key," Burnham said, "Who really cares. He was dying on the inside because he didn't have people around him who cared about him instead of his giftedness and accomplishments."
The psychologist said it's vital for families and schools to support and care about one another for the benefit of the child.
Deseret News education editor Twila Van Leer said parents need to abandon the attitude that it's only the school's job to educate their children.
"Parents don't involve themselves in school except to say, `Have you done your homework?' " she reported.
The journalist quoted a Deseret News teacher survey, published last August, that said teachers viewed lack of parental involvement as the third most important problem facing Utah schools, following behind large classes and low teacher pay.
Teachers in the survey reported although 20 percent of parents always attend parent-teacher conferences, 20 percent never do. "There are those who don't even have that one contact a year," Van Leer said.
There are, however, examples of good parental involvement. Van Leer cited Ridgecrest Elementary, where parents held an auction to raise money to pay the salary of a media center specialist, and Hill View Elementary, where parents secured $85,000 in donated equipment to build a model railway system.
"Where it is good, it is very, very good, but it isn't enough," she said.