Educators are focused on Atlantic City this week, as the New Jersey Education Association brings its annual convention to the resort.

But teachers, lawmakers, parents and school board members serious about improving education in the state would do well to take a wider look around, at area schools that are setting an interesting example.

At their Atlantic City convention today and tomorrow, teachers will discuss new methods for helping children learn, and vendors will show off the latest in educational materials.

In the coming weeks, the Legislature will decide whether to take up a variety of education reforms, from changes in the state aid funding formula to the creation of scholarships for children attending private schools and Gov. Chris Christie's proposal to dramatically alter teacher tenure. Already, the NJEA has made its own tenure proposal, which would tweak rather than overhaul the system. The union is also calling for full-day kindergarten statewide.

Some of these statewide proposals seem to be motivated more by politics than by a concern for educating students. But in Wildwood, for instance, a new initiative may be pointing the way to make a real difference in our schools.

In the kindergarten at the Glenwood Avenue Elementary School Annex, which is located in North Wildwood, something called the Parents and Guardians Guiding Reading program is making parents an extension of the classroom.

The program brings parents and guardians into the classroom to teach them how to help teach their children to read. The activities, which focus on reading to children, may also help parents become better readers themselves. Wildwood second-grade teacher Liz Wade, who developed the program, said one of its goals is to increase parental involvement in education.

Similarly, Egg Harbor Township High School social studies teacher Michael Martirone got parents involved with a recent "Are You Smarter Than a Freshman" contest.

Several Atlantic City schools have family centers that bring parents into the schools.

The emphasis on parental involvement is growing. NJEA is pushing a plan for 24 hours of unpaid parental leave that would make it easier for working parents to attend school events and conferences.

New Jersey schools consistently rank among the best nationally in standardized test scores. Earlier this month the National Assessment of Educational Progress ranked the state second in fourth-grade and eighth-grade reading test scores, third in eighth-grade math scores and fourth in fourth-grade math scores.

New Jersey's most serious educational concern is the achievement gap that still exists between high-performing suburban districts and low-performing urban districts. Proposed education reforms that take a one-size-fits-all approach ignore this reality.

Experts inside and outside the classroom, and from across the political spectrum, agree that some of the difference in the levels of success between middle-class and low-income students can be attributed to different levels of parental involvement.

By reaching out to parents and guardians and by training them to be partners in their children's education, districts like Wildwood are on to something that needs more attention statewide, something that could make a bigger difference for students than any of the proposed reforms in front of the Legislature.

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