The tables in the cafeteria were set just so, with linen tablecloths and two types of forks and Pumpkin Patch napkins folded into triangles. Fifth-graders with white towels draped over their arms served baked chicken on ceramic plates and poured iced tea into wine glasses.
Tonight's guests were special.
Oscar Robinson, the principal at Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg, had asked the families of 10 kindergarten students to join him for dinner. He had called them, mailed invitations.
Five showed up.
At Melrose — a C school where 90 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch — five wasn't bad, and it was a lot better than zero. So when the clinking of silverware faded, the principal with the easy smile and the uphill battle stood before all five parents and eased into his topic.
• • •
At Robinson's school, dozens of smart, caring people do what they can every day — and still come up short.
Fifty-seven percent of Melrose students could read at grade level last year. Among black students, 45 percent could. Unless something dramatic happens, many will become dropouts.
Robinson, 65, thinks parents engaging in their kid's education would be dramatic.
He understands what gets in the way. Some of the parents at Melrose are unemployed or work two or three jobs. Some move three or four times a year. Some had bad experiences with schools when they were young.
Others want to help their children with homework but don't know how.
That's okay, Robinson wants to tell them. You can still help.
Before his speech, he showed them how, even if they didn't realize it.
"Mr. Watts," he said to one of the kindergartners, his voice warm, his focus singular. "How are you doing tonight, sir?"
Suddenly, the boy was the center of attention. He couldn't help but smile.
• • •
Robinson was raised by his grandparents, sharecroppers who never attended school themselves. They did not look at his report cards. They made his shirts out of flour sacks.
"I felt like we were backward, dumb people," Robinson said.
But Mrs. Hill, Robinson's fourth-grade teacher, noticed Robinson had a stellar memory, so she made him director of the Easter play.
It was a hit. Robinson's confidence soared.
Then Mrs. Hill really taught him a lesson.
Like every other boy, Robinson did not want to wear a Scottish kilt for the end-of-the-year dance. He told Mrs. Hill his family could not afford one.
A few days later, Robinson came home to find Mrs. Hill and Grandma on the porch, chatting.
Grandma lit into Robinson for lying, and he ended up being the only boy doing a jig in a kilt. That image has never left him.
Neither has the sight of Mrs. Hill and Grandma, talking as equals.
• • •
If Robinson was the preacher on this night, the dinner guests were the choir. They included Melrose's top volunteer mom, a Filipino couple with college degrees, a former teacher.
Robinson gave his talk anyway. He's planning to give it again at other family dinners.
The conversations we have with our children about learning are more important than anything. Let them know the primary reason they're here is about the reading and the math and the science. ...
Ask them, "What kind of day did you have today?" instead of "Did you have a good day?" Start having specific conversations. "What did you learn in reading? What did you learn in math?" ...
Take time and listen to them. Sit down, look 'em straight in the face and let them know you're listening to them. That lets them know it's important ...
Compliment them. Make them think they're the most important thing in the world. There's nothing worse than a child being in third grade and all they've heard is how terrible they are ...
I'm not asking parents to teach the children. That's what we get paid for. I'm not even asking you to be a good parent. That's your decision.
I'm asking you to help them value learning.
We'll do the rest.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.