DUXBURY - ML Nichols believes parents and schools should get beyond the "blame game'' and talk to one another.
Getting beyond adversarial relationships and building bridges between home and school is a big part of the message the Duxbury parent will bring to next weekend's national "Mom Congress on Education and Learning'' in Washington, D.C., on educational policy.
Nichols was chosen by Parenting magazine to represent Massachusetts at the annual conference, a rare opportunity to meet national leaders such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and share ideas with top specialists, policymakers, and other Mom Congress delegates on how to improve the country's schools.
Beginning as a local school volunteer, Nichols has gone from helping to get school additions built to cofounding a volunteer network called the Parent Connection, which sponsors programs and speakers and draws attendance from the South Shore and beyond, then to starting her own business as a consultant called the Parent Backpack. A book is on the way.
"The more the parents are involved with their children's learning, the more connected they are, the more successful the child's experience is,'' Nichols said recently.
But there are barriers, she said.
"There's a blame game going on in both parents and schools.''
Nichols, who has a daughter in Duxbury High School and another in middle school, not only talks about building bridges between home and school but also does things to make it happen, according to those who work with her.
"Her creative mind works tirelessly,'' said Barbara Green, the medical director of South Shore Hospital's Youth Health Connection, an agency that partners regularly with the Parent Connection. "It is rare to find someone who sees a need and takes action steps to meet it.''
Helping parents and teachers keep current with top educational thinking, the Parent Connection brought nationally known educator and author Tony Wagner to Duxbury earlier this month to speak on "Teaching Our Kids How to Think vs. What to Think: Why Even the Best Schools Need to Reinvent the Way Our Kids Learn.''
Nichols's business is based on years of building up expertise, bringing parents' concerns to local schools, and carrying information back to parents.
"It was like I wore a sign on my back saying, 'Ask me about the schools,' '' she recalled.
Eventually, she said, she decided to offer her service as a business. She consults with parents, gives workshops, and provides a blog on her website, theparentbackpack.com, for parents with current thinking on school issues and specific strategies to cope with problems. She calls the site a tool kit to help parents of elementary school students navigate their way through the schools and build their own bridges.
And she's currently working with publishers on a companion book titled "The Parent Backpack: How to Navigate Kindergarten Through Grade 5 So Your Kids Thrive . . . and You Survive.'' Local educators say helping parents and educators understand one another's point of view is one of Nichols's major contributions.
"Her basic theme is to be positive,'' said Candy Weiler, who recently retired as principal of the Carver Elementary School and was an assistant principal in Duxbury. "You may be hot under the collar, but calm down and go in more as a partner. ML tries to give [parents] equal footing, not to be afraid or intimidated. . . . As an administrator, that's what administrators want. They want parents to step up and advocate for their children. They want to work with parents.''
Carver brought in Nichols to lead a workshop for parents on understanding how schools operate and how to deal with them. She was excellent, Weiler said.
Anne Ward, vice chairwoman of the Duxbury School Committee, said the need for better communication was a major issue when she and Nichols worked as parent volunteers a decade ago.
"Parental involvement needed to be encouraged,'' Ward said. The two took part in a special communications committee, helping to develop a school website and create guidelines for parent-school communications on questions such as how soon should parents expect a reply to an e-mail. Answer: 24 hours.
Sarah Madigan, a teacher at Duxbury's Alden Elementary School, said she met Nichols nearly 15 years ago when she started volunteering in the schools. Nichols put her business skills to work to raising support for additions to local elementary schools.
"It took a concerted marketing effort of coffees, fliers, and informational sessions to get the word out to all stakeholders, and she knew how to do this,'' Madigan said. "She didn't stop after that project was accomplished.''
Nichols continues to emphasize the role of parents in their children's education. Leading workshops these days, she asks participants who their own most influential teacher was. The right answer, she says, is your parents.
Parents' need to stay engaged in their children's learning continues after they start school. Keep reading to your children even after they learn to read, she advises, and check up on homework.
But staying involved isn't easy, she acknowledged.
"Schools are complex, and they don't always make it easy to get involved, especially when it comes to communicating,'' Nichols said.
Parents "should channel their inner Momma and Poppa Bears,'' her term for the natural protective instincts parents have for their young, into building bridges with school before a problem begins. That's especially true if a health or learning issue or "some [other] barrier in a child's life,'' has already been identified. A brief e-mail to a teacher or administrator is a good start.
"Parents have an obligation to treat and communicate with educators in a respectful way - just as they would with someone at work or another professional,'' Nichols said.
While some parents can't make time to meet with a teacher, other ways to connect to the learning process can be found, such as teaching fractions when cutting up a pizza, she said. Parents also can make sure children have time for learning by limiting computer and TV time.
Her website also takes up issues such as standardized testing and holding back youngsters for another year before starting kindergarten, a practice called "redshirting.''
As for dialoguing with the policymakers in Washington at the conference beginning on April 29, Nichols said it's not enough for schools to say they want parents engaged in their child's learning. They have to mean it.
"All the policies and written words mean nothing unless the culture of a school genuinely wants parents to be involved and welcomes parents into their children's learning,'' Nichols said in an e-mail.
"And that culture needs to trickle down to the teachers at the classroom level.
"Some teachers don't allow parents to volunteer in their child's classroom or make communicating about their child difficult for parents - and that sends the wrong message to parents.''
To help her send the right message to Washington, Nichols is asking parents to share their thoughts on a survey to be posted on her website.
Robert Knox can be reached at email@example.com.