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by William L. Bainbridge

(Bill is president of SchoolMatch, a national school-evaluation and research company and on the Board of Directors of the S.A.A.)

The demographics of schools have changed, as our culture has evolved. Many schools have more children of divorce and living in-step than from traditional two-parent families.

When parents divorce, their children often become part of two distinct families. Unfortunately many schools have not developed policies and practices that take the needs of these pupils into account. As a result, the children may not complete homework assignments on time and may not be able to attend school events and activities because one parent may not have appropriate information. Performance and attendance may suffer and tension may increase between parents, stepparents, and children.

Change needs to start with parents asserting their need. They should contact the teachers often, show up at school events, and ask for extra copies of notices and newsletters. Parents should offer assistance to school staff members. The more school staff members see and hear from stepparents and parents, the sooner they will accept two-family situations as typical...and positive. Once that happens, the culture of the school can change.

What can school administrators do to ease the tensions for children who move between homes? The most important idea is to make sure all school personnel understand stepfamilies are the norm for many children, not a deviation from a 2-parent, 1-family standard. The school staff should assume that a child's parents and stepparents all want to be as involved as possible in their children's school lives. Establishing a positive attitude of inclusion will improve communication all around. A well-worded memo or a staff development session helps create school-wide awareness and acceptance. Schools need to make these attitudes official and practical:

  • Adopt an official policy that ensures communication with all of a child's parents and put it in writing.
  • Avoid "kidmail" as much as possible. Children frequently fail to pass information along to parents and the information does not get through. This can reduce a lot of pressure on children who might feel caught in the middle between parents who still have communication issues themselves.
  • Send duplicate copies of materials, especially performance reports, notices of field trips and events, and permission slips to both households. Include both households in all mailings. Pick-up points in the school can be established so parents can drop by to get materials.
  • Use more than one means to communicate (mailings, e-mail, telephone calls, etc.) with families. The PTA and other parent groups can help here: try telephone or e-mail round-robins in which one parent contacts two others and those two contact two others, etc.
  • Create call-in or online homework hotlines, events calendars, scheduling information, etc. that parents, students, and staff can access 24 hours a day. This hotline could be maintained by parent volunteers or a group of students with interest in technology. If these practices do not exist in your children's school, ask for them. Be assertive. These changes will make school life better for all of our children.