In years past, Ray Joyce, 11, avoided attending parent-teacher conferences. He did not particularly cherish the idea of sitting quietly in the background as his teacher and his mother talked about his progress and problems.
But this year, the Corkran Middle School sixth-grader did more than just attend the conference. He led it.
Corkran is one of eight Anne Arundel County middle schools experimenting with pupil-led conferences, a fresh twist on the traditional parent-teacher meetings.
Teachers watch from the sidelines while the pupils tell their parents what they have done in school, the grades they are getting and the improvements they can make. Pupils put together a portfolio of work from every class to show to their parents.
Kathy Joyce examined samples of her son's journal entries, his work on artifacts in social studies and his math classwork. The lanky, soft-spoken boy said he felt nervous about the conference "because I usually talk about school at home in front of my family, not at school."
A nearly straight-A pupil who stays up late reading, Ray also told his mother that he had been late to first-period English 15 times and sometimes did not make up the missed work.
"I was so surprised and so impressed. We have always taught our sons to deal with everything honestly and openly, and that is exactly what he did," Joyce said.
Pupil-led conferences started coming up as alternatives in national middle school conferences about a decade ago but have only recently caught on at local schools.
Fewer than half of the 19 Anne Arundel County middle schools are experimenting with it, but Catherine Gilbert, one of the county school system's middle school directors, said it is likely to expand as more parents, pupils and teachers get used to the idea.
Local educators said the new style of conferencing develops responsibility, pride and accountability in young adolescents.
"It gives them a sense of ownership about their work," Corkran Principal Deborah Montgomery said. "You can have a teacher present the work and tell the parent why she thinks the student is not doing well. But if you have the child presenting his or her own work, they can really offer a fresh perspective about why they got the grade they did."
Montgomery said teachers have heard pupils tell their parents that they did not do homework assignments because their favorite TV show was on, or that they did not ace vocabulary quizzes because they had trouble understanding the words in context.
"That is insight that teachers could not give," said Montgomery, who used the conferences with sixth-graders this year and plans to expand them to the seventh grade next year.
Montgomery also heard a few complaints. Some parents said the conferences were one of the few times they got reassurance about their children's schoolwork from an adult and that they missed that direct teacher interaction.
Teachers and principals said pupil-led conferences are less confrontational.
"This was a better way for many of our parents, because they did not feel like they were sitting in front of a panel hearing bad news about their child. The more traditional parent-teacher conferences were more intimidating in that way," said Raymond Bibeault, principal of Brooklyn Park Middle, the first local school to pilot pupil-led conferences last year.
It was a success. Bibeault said parents told him it was one of the few times they could talk to their children about grades and school "without it ending up with them running to their bedroom in tears."
He also said the pupil-led model significantly boosted the number of conferences. Traditional parent-teacher meetings allowed barely enough time to call in parents of struggling pupils. The new method allows several to go on while the teacher walks around and remains available to answer questions.
On the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Brooklyn Park held more than 400 conferences in grades six through eight, Bibeault said, up from 30 or 40 per grade when traditional parent-teacher conferences were held.
When Bibeault shared his positive experiences at a meeting of middle school principals in the spring, Corkran's Montgomery was all ears. She had been looking for new ways to improve parent involvement. Though parents typically are heavily involved when their children are in elementary school, support wanes in the middle school years.
Corkran is struggling to meet federal benchmarks for reading and math proficiency among its special education pupils and in reading among economically disadvantaged children.
Montgomery said her hope is that bringing parents into the school will encourage involvement in their children's learning and eventually help improve pupils' test performance.
Montgomery also hopes that successful pupil-led conferences will attract more parents like Kathy Joyce, who spends as many as three days a week at Corkran.
Joyce is keeping an even closer eye on Ray since he revealed during his pupil-led conference that he wants to go to medical school or law school, ambitions he had never told her about.
"He was so in control. He knew exactly what he wanted to do and how he wanted to change things," she said.