For years attendance was minimal at Tefft Middle School’s annual parent-teacher conferences, but the principal did not chalk up the poor response to apathetic or dysfunctional families. Instead, she blamed what she saw as the outmoded, irrelevant way the conferences were conducted.
Roughly 60 percent of the 850 students at Tefft, in this working-class suburb some 30 miles northwest of Chicago, are from low-income families. Many are immigrants, unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the tradition of parents perched in pint-size chairs, listening intently as a teacher delivers a 15-minute soliloquy on their child’s academic progress, or lack thereof.
“Five years ago, the most important person — the student — was left out of the parent-teacher conference,” Tefft’s principal, Lavonne Smiley, said. “The old conferences were such a negative thing, so we turned it around by removing all the barriers and obstacles,” including allowing students not only to attend but also to lead the gatherings instead of anxiously awaiting their parents’ return home with the teacher’s verdict on their classroom performance.