- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 6, 2001

Active parents
play central role
in scholarship

Kindergartner Jennifer Malloy settled onto the living-room couch, books by her side, in her small Cape Cod home in Arlington every school night after dinner.

There, as a younger sister or two toddled around, she and her parents read from her school texts, practiced figures and handwriting, and memorized poems and verses.

As the years went by and the Malloy family increased to five children, the evening study hour turned into the social event of the evening, says Jennifer's mother, Marcia Malloy.

“It was just what the family did every night,” she says. “TV was not an option on school nights.”

Before heading off to James Madison University, Jennifer capped her high school career by becoming valedictorian of her graduating class at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington.

So did her sisters, Christine and Deborah one a recent graduate of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg and the other a sophomore there. The fourth sister, Jessica, 16, is a straight-A student at Washington-Lee, and Nikki, the baby at 9 and a pupil at Trinity Christian School in Fairfax, seems to be following in the academically successful footsteps of her siblings.

Is this rather remarkable success within one family attributable to nature or nurture?

Probably nurture, one concludes after listening closely to the Malloy girls' parents. Actually, many factors contribute to exemplary academic performance family economics and the quality of the school are two but parents are the cornerstone, according to many researchers and educators.

“We always praised good performance and worked quietly behind the scenes regarding weaknesses,” says the girls' father, Mark Malloy, a project manager for a development firm. “We were never critical of poor performance.”

“We're not geniuses,” says Mrs. Malloy, a part-time art teacher. “It really isn't about being a genius. Basically, parents transmit values to their students that reflect how they respond to school.

Develop a work ethic

Indeed, the potential exists within all children to be excellent students, says Rosalind LaRocque, assistant director of educational issues at the American Federation of Teachers, based in the District. The keys are personal motivation and ongoing guidance from adults.

“A successful student is one who has learned how to apply a certain talent or strategy that would contribute to their success,” Ms. LaRocque says.

One of those strategies is developing a well-defined work ethic.

“Parents must show students how to plan and how to set goals,” she says. “Students will succeed if parents attempt to maintain a certain level of involvement, and the research shows that if parents and schools communicate positively, then students achieve.”

Perhaps now more than ever in this information age and dynamic economy, success is based on the skills to collect, analyze and synthesize data.

“When we look at school achievement now, we are looking at the opportunities and options children will have when they grow up,” says Mary Ruth Coleman, a research scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ms. Coleman also gives advice on the Learning Network, an Internet site (www.familyeducation.com).

“School achievement is important for [childrens] well-being and mental health now, because it's their main job; it's also very important because long-term, their options will be closed down if they don't do well. … Their areas of interest will be limited, particularly if those options require additional schooling. Although there are many different ways to pursue interests, higher education usually is part of the picture.”

Competition is fierce to gain entrance into colleges, and most parents realize it pays to help their children succeed in school before the college entrance exams and applications begin. Many parents simply are unsure just how to help their children, but without the extra push from parents, Ms. LaRocque says, most children will perform as average students.

“It's basically about modeling,” she says. “Our research suggests that the environment in which the child develops has an effect on whether they are successful or not and parents can create an environment for success at home.”

Inherent in this enhanced environment, Ms. LaRocque says, are elements such as:

•Restrictions on TV watching.

•Availability of reading materials such as newspapers, newsmagazines, encyclopedias, nonfiction and literature which the child sees the parents reading.

•Educational activities such as museum visits.

•A quiet place for children to do their homework so they are not distracted.

The modeling in the Malloy house is rather basic.

“We are clear that we as adults have jobs and that everyone has and will have a job and work that they need to do,” Mrs. Malloy says. “Dad goes to work, Mom is managing the household, and the job of the child is to do a good job at school. There is no free lunch everyone has to learn to contribute to the family.”

Know the child's strengths

The importance of education always has been the No. 1 theme in the Reston home of Lyle Hogg, a pilot for US Airways, and his wife, Gretchen, a registered nurse.

“We've always held it as a priority,” Mrs. Hogg says. She and Mr. Hogg are parents to Carey, a University of Virginia freshman, high school senior Jessica and eighth-grader Jordy, all very successful students.

“It has always been implicit in our parenting that all of our children will go on to higher education,” Mrs. Hogg says.

A basic tenet of the couple's parenting philosophy is to bolster the strong points of their children.

“Not only do we supplement our children where they are weak, but we also put supplemental help into their gifts or strengths,” Mrs. Hogg adds.

She says it is critical to find out what will keep a child's self-confidence soaring as high as possible.

“Identify whatever strengths they have, and encourage whatever activity will give them a sense of self-confidence, even if they make mistakes,” Mrs. Hogg says. “Whether it was coaching, musical concerts, dancing lessons, we've always taken a very strong interest in what they did. We always tried to expose them to a lot of different areas of interest and then tried to see what they really enjoyed and then encouraged that.”

For example, daughter Carey has shown a keen interest in politics, government and other cultures.

This interest led to her participation for several summers in a student-ambassador program.

“It was just an automatic response when she got the application to participate,” Mrs. Hogg says. “We recognized early that she had a lot of leadership skills, and we knew that it would be an asset to have her experience that.”

Help child set goals

It's all about setting high expectations, says Debbie Bostian, president of the Maryland Parent-Teacher Association.

“You have to set goals, or have [your children] set goals, right from the beginning,” Ms. Bostian says.

Being involved is key, she says.

“Parents should be active participants in their children's education. You can't do that if you don't know what's being taught there and what is going on. When they start going to school, show them this is an important place in their life and let them know that it is their job to learn as much as they can when they go to school.”

But, basically, says Mrs. Malloy, sooner or later, it comes down to the child.

“At some point a student has to decide that they want to do well,” she says. “For a while they will work to please their parents, but after a while, they need to have cultivated a reason.”

Mrs. Malloy says one of her daughters reports that she rubbed elbows with a lot of lazy students in high school. Such students would calculate how much they would need to study to receive the lowest grade that still would land them an A or B in the class.

“She said she wasn't happy with a 91 when she knew that with a bit more study she could get a 99,” Mrs. Malloy says. “She said that we had instilled in her the attitude that whatever you are going to do, do it the best you can.”

Each student must find something a career goal, a specific college, competition with other students that serves as a vision into why working hard is a benefit to them and that it is worth it to sacrifice fun to attain that goal.

“Parents can lay the foundation for this jump-off spot by how we treat homework, teachers, moral education and our philosophy of life,” Mrs. Malloy says.

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