WILLIAM RASPBERRY: Giving kids the MegaSkills for life …

OKOLONA – Three months ago, I announced, somewhat enigmatically, my intention to “invest time and personal resources to see how much meaningful difference can be accomplished in the small community that happens to be my hometown.”

This is that hometown, population 3,500, and while it's far too soon to declare success, I am greatly encouraged by what's happening here.

I've just come away from a Saturday “seminar” in which parents of small children learned some of the “tricks” for getting them ready for school success – ideas ranging from using ordinary kitchen items to teach word recognition (for toddlers) to improving literacy skills (for first- and second-graders).

The cheerful enthusiasm of these young parents is one reason for my optimism. Another is the willing participation of people whose children are decades out of school, who have no direct connection to the schools, but who still want to be involved because they think it's good for the town. Somehow I was particularly struck by the fact that the food service workers who prepared our lunch did so on their day off, and without pay.

The program of which the Saturday session was a part is called Baby Steps. Its basic idea is that all parents, no matter how unsuccessful they might have been in school, want their children to succeed academically – even if many of them don't know how to make that happen.

We propose to teach them. The “text” for the effort is Dorothy Rich's MegaSkills – a set of 11 attitudes and competencies that she believes leads to success in school and in life. These include perseverance, confidence, teamwork and responsibility. The program uses parent-child games and adults-only discussions to teach these skills, one at a time.

The idea is to train the parents themselves, as their children's most effective teachers, to pass these MegaSkills along to their children.

But just as we were about to launch Baby Steps, I came upon Betty Hart and Todd Risley's book, “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children,” in which they show the importance of parent-child communication. Poor parents, they found in a years-long study, engage in significantly less chatter with their youngsters than do their middle-class counterparts, with the result that poor children tend to be less verbal by the time they start school.

So, with guidance from Risley, we've had to add a language-building component to Baby Steps. We call it Baby Steps, by the way, both to signal the modesty of our beginning with the smallest children – from birth to age 5 – and to indicate our intention to undertake the longer strides of involving adolescents and teenagers, as we gain the necessary experience, tools and resources. Our modest midrange goal is to make Okolona's children the smartest in northeast Mississippi.

For the children to reach their potential means their families have to learn new ways of child-rearing. But the families are more likely to do what they need to do if they are surrounded by a committed community.

Central to what we're attempting is the perhaps-audacious notion that an entire town can be led to rally around its children: reading to them, tutoring them, supporting their parents, helping at school. What we are hoping to do is to change the culture in which schooling happens.

The early signs are encouraging. My talks at the local town hall, at a recent PTA meeting, at a Saturday morning session with local ministers all lead me to believe that Okolona is ready to back my play.

It will be a few years before these early efforts show up in public school test scores. But I don't doubt it will happen.

Will our success, when it happens, provide a template for other communities? Not in any direct way. What we are doing draws on the particular history and assets of this town, including the reservoir of trust that has been built up over the years. The fact that I am from here (and that I'm funding the initial effort out-of-pocket) is one element of that trust. Other communities might need to take very different approaches.

But, then, we're not trying to reinvent American education. We're just trying improve the prospects for the next generation of Okolona's children.

William Raspberry is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. He was reared in Okolona. His address is 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. His e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com.

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