Boston Parent Turns Frustration into ‘Engagement Power’

By Michele Molnar — February 04, 2013 2 min read
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Talk about transforming a mother’s anger into action: Michele Brooks might be a textbook case.

Brooks, who was just named an Education Week “Leader to Learn From,” channeled her fury about low expectations at her daughter’s high school into the work of volunteering as a parent, then a parent organizer, and finally joining the 57,000-student Boston Public School system as assistant superintendent for family and student engagement, where she is known for her transformative capabilities.

The Parent University she and her staff launched four years ago is just one of her initiatives to connect parents’ work to help student achievement. A series of workshops and presentations designed to educate parents on their roles as teachers, advocates, leaders, and learners, Boston’s Parent University model is emulated by school districts in other cities. More than 5,000 parents have gone through this program, and out of 125 schools in the system, 95 have parents who have participated in it.

Thinking back to the fateful day 20 years ago, when Brooks was cooling her heels in a Boston high school principal’s office, it’s interesting to see the trajectory of her experience. A mother of three who had gone to high school in Boston, she decided to move her family from Tennessee to Boston so her children could attend the same high school where she felt she had learned so much, and so well.

“One morning, my daughter decided before she left the house to write an essay. She was supposed to be working on it for a week, but she hurriedly wrote it on a crumpled piece of paper,” Brooks recalls.

“I knew my daughter, who was in 9th grade, could write, so I said, ‘This is junk. But go ahead and turn it in’,” she said. When her daughter later triumphantly showed her mom that she had gotten an “A,” Brooks was upset, especially upon hearing that the teacher was mainly impressed that her daughter wrote in full sentences. Then came the clincher: a guidance counselor advised Brooks’ daughter not to worry until senior year if her courses would put her on a college prep track and, anyway, “not everyone is cut out for college.”

“I was livid. ... I put on my jogging suit, baseball hat, and went to school with the essay in hand,” Brooks recalls. There, she encountered a surly and uncooperative secretary and an assistant principal who told her that no parent ever came in angry about an “A” their child received. By the time the principal ushered her into his office, Brooks had gone ballistic.

Luckily, the principal was a model of diplomacy. He said he could see that she was “really upset,” then enlisted her help in creating change using the “parent power” she had. Brooks began volunteering in the high school, scaled back the full-time information technology job she had into a contract position so she would have more flexibility, and never looked back.

To learn more about how Brooks is transforming Boston Public Schools, read, “Boston Leader Connects Parents to Learning.”

Photo: Michele Brooks recalls the incident that transformed her life. (Charlie Mahoney/Prime for Education Week)

A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.