Left to right) Ann Harder, Lori Ketkar, Principal Jody Pastell, Debbie Conforty, Melissa Fry, and Maggie Heisler. Photo by Ed Pilolla
It was a typical start to the day for Principal Jody Pastell: She met with parents. Pastell attended an arts training session for parents in the morning. At noon, she met with more parents, and in the afternoon she would attend a parent board meeting to discuss plans for next school year at Cornerstone Elementary School.
“Every school has parent involvement, but there isn’t a school in the nation that has parent involvement to the extent that we have it,” Pastell said.
Cornerstone Elementary School in Rancho Palos Verdes, part of the Palos Verdes Unified School District, has been a national leader in parent participation for nearly two decades. The school has won national awards and been held up as a model for other schools to follow, and because the school is so popular an admissions lottery is held to determine which lucky students in the district will attend Cornerstone.
For 15 years, Pastell has met with parents and kept this “finely oiled machine” of 400 parent volunteers in green aprons at Cornerstone working.
The main ingredient in keeping the large parent participation program running smoothly according to the longtime principal: Listen to what the parents have to say.
“The biggest difference about this school is you’ve got your parents and your staff and your teachers all working as part of that triangle, and nothing breaks in that triangle,” Pastell said. “If we have a little hiccup or a wavy line or whatever, we meet and we talk about what it is and we move forward. Nothing is ever allowed to get to a place where it’s unmanageable.”
Basically, Pastell said, the teachers are in charge and her job as principal, among other duties, is as a go-between. “I’m the person that they talk to so it all doesn’t go crazy going right to teachers,” Pastell said.
The school’s parent participation program began in the mid-90s when five mothers wanted to continue the hands-on involvement they enjoyed while their children attended the Palos Verdes Hills Co-op Nursery School. The bedrock benefit of the parent volunteers in the kindergarten through fifth-grade classrooms are the small groups that form to make teaching more intimate for the students, and effective.
Studies, and experience, have shown that the smaller learning groups, the more attention for each child.
And what enables small group instruction is the training parents receive, Pastell said. Upwards of 80 parents volunteer at Cornerstone everyday, and they become an extension of the teacher through mandatory training sessions led by the teachers themselves. Parents are taught how to ask questions of the students and how to guide discussion, among other things.
“It’s very clear that the teachers are in charge of curriculum,” Pastell said. “And the parents are trained to implement whatever part of that curriculum that the teachers ask them to do.”
Parents work a 3 1/2 –hour shift, and they know exactly where they will be and what they will be doing, whether it’s supervising the tether ball on the playground or leading small group discussions about various poems in a fourth-grade classroom.
“Nobody should be on campus unless I know about it,” Pastell said. “Otherwise, it would be a free for all, and that wouldn’t be a good design.”
Parents become comfortable in their roles, as children do in the small groups.
“The kids feel especially safe with us,” said Jessica Fine, a parent of a first and third grader. “There is a bonding that goes on that is unique that goes on here that doesn’t anywhere else.”
Fine said her first grader struggled making the transition from a smaller preschool elsewhere to a larger first grade at Cornerstone, but her son recognized many of the parent volunteers and that eased his transition. “Knowing other families that well gave him great comfort just to come to school,” Fine said.
Parents and teachers working while closely aligned in the planning process produces a more detailed approach to the kids. In the classroom, the small groups of students receive customized instruction, said Sheryl Rasmussen, a kindergarten teacher.
“If you don’t plan properly, they can’t advance to that next level of what they need as far as development,” Rasmussen said.
The ultimate goal of the parent participation program at Cornerstone is to prevent any child from “falling through the cracks,” as Pastell herself did as a student.
Pastell, a product of PV schools, said that when she was a child, she often sat in the back of classroom and didn’t ask a lot of questions. She watched a lot. But that doesn’t happen at Cornerstone. The students know how to be proactive and ask questions, which is a significant because Cornerstone isn’t a magnet school but rather has all sorts of kids with special needs co-mingled in the general population.
Pastell, who also helps develop curriculum in the district office, began her teaching career as a Spanish instructor for L.A. Unified in 1974. After teaching in Manhattan Beach for a year, she returned to her hometown and took the helm of Cornerstone in 1999.
Pastell said the proof of Cornerstone’s success can be found in former students. “After they finish high school and college and they come back and talk, they say that number one: They learned how to be confident. They learned how to talk to adults. They know how to ask questions,” Pastell said.
And that’s because the parents, through training by teachers, know how to lead discussions.