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School asks father to limit cafeteria time with son

Friday, February 02, 2001

By Rhonda Miller, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dan Grove works the 3 p.m.-to-midnight shift as a school custodian. It limits the time he can spend with his 10-year-old son, John.

So in these days of two working parents and activity-laden children, Grove thought he had found a way to spend time with his only child.

Grove, who lives in Ohioville in Beaver County, spends about an hour with his son each morning, getting him off to school while his wife, Cindy, starts the daylight shift at a nursing home.

And he joins his son, a third-grader, for lunch at his school, Fairview Elementary in Midland.

He and his son have been eating lunch together in the cafeteria for the past four years, since John was in kindergarten.

"It was no problem," said Grove.

Educators have been encouraging such parental involvement in their child's school. But, apparently, lunch every day is too much.

A new policy went into effect in September that allows a parent to come to one breakfast and one lunch a week at school, said Enrico Antonini, superintendent of Western Beaver County School District.

The school requested that Grove cut down on the number of weekday visits, but after several discussions between parent and administrators, neither side was budging.

So, on Jan. 24, Grove received a registered letter informing him that he would be charged with trespassing if he further violates the policy.

"We believe that the policy is not rigid," said Antonini about the new rule, which was developed by a committee of parents, teachers, administrators and specialists, including the school psychologist.

He said the policy was also put into effect because of safety issues.

"We're not trying to close the door. We encourage parents to come in and volunteer, to help with parties and to be involved with the PTO. But every day is too much," said the superintendent. "We believe that children have to learn to be independent. It's important that they have social interaction for their development.

"The letter had to be sent as a last resort," said Antonini, who added that school administrators have been talking with Groves for the past two years.

There is no deadline in the letter for Grove to reduce his lunch visits.

"We purposely did not put a date in the letter because we wanted to give him time," Antonini said yesterday.

Grove said he had asked administrators for three months to get his son used to the fewer visits. He said he was complying with the terms of the letter. He said he went to lunch only once this week, on Tuesday.

"Our primary interest is in what's best for the child," the superintendent said.

Antonini said one other father visited the school quite frequently and upon receiving the new policy, began cooperating with it. That parent also joined the policy committee, which will review the new rule and decide if any changes are needed for next year.

Grove, who works as a custodian at Beaver Area High School, said he is concerned when he sees some teens who are unsupervised and show disrespect toward adults.

"Children grow up so fast, in the blink of an eye, and if you miss something, you can't turn back the clock," said Grove.

Grove said that he has volunteered for a wide variety of school projects during the past few years, including helping to build a playground and preparing classrooms for school parties.

Many Pittsburgh-area school districts do not have formal policies addressing parents who come to school for lunch or breakfast. They enforce the blanket policy they have for all visitors, such as signing in at the front office, wearing identification tags and cooperating with school staff and programs. Some principals said it is common for parents, for instance, to bring a fast-food lunch to school for a child's birthday.

"We encourage parents to come to breakfast or lunch. That's a positive thing," said Raymond Puskar, principal of Sto-Rox Elementary School in McKees Rocks. "But I would find it to be a problem if it were everyday. I don't think it's good for the child. Lunchtime is for students to have a chance to sit with new kids, make new friends, just socialize."

Grove said his son socializes with many friends at lunch, and shares news of the day, maybe an "A" on a spelling test, with his dad.

But school administrators say concerns can arise if schools are too open to parental visits, especially at lunchtime.

In cases of divorce, for instance, school staff could be put in a difficult situation if the noncustodial parent wanted to come to lunch on days that were not court-approved visitation days, said Gary Winkler, principal of Tenth Street Elementary School in Oakmont.

Also, some schools fear parents might interfere with the enforcement of certain school rules.

"Our lunchroom rule is that kids have to raise their hands to get up from the table to go get something, like a drink or a napkin," said Winkler. "But if Mom or Dad are there and the parent says it's fine to run up and get a napkin, the child might do that because he is used to having the parent provide supervision."

At Chartiers Valley Primary School, kindergarten parents often show up for lunch, said Principal Kevin Kuhn.

"We try to teach independence from Day 1, so we prefer that the kids experience lunch and recess on their own," said Kuhn.

But if the parent feels it is important to be there, they sign in and are free to go to the cafeteria, he said.

"If the parent frequently wants to be at lunch or drives a child to school, it could create a bigger anxiety problem about separation," said Kuhn. "That wouldn't be doing a real service to the child or help him prepare for school and the outside world.

"Social interaction isn't something that shows up on a report card, but it is important to learn group dynamics," he added.

There are also the feelings of the other children. They might begin to wonder why their parents aren't showing up, Kuhn said.

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