Lionel Jefferson was 7 and only a few days into a new school year when Hurricane Katrina hit. The floodwaters that devoured much of the city destroyed his family’s home, forcing them to relocate near Houston, where his mother said the schools were better and teachers worked closely with Lionel to help him catch up.
But after a year away, Nicole Ellzey, Lionel’s mother, moved the family back to New Orleans to return to her job as a housekeeper in a hotel near the French Quarter. The family lived in a FEMA trailer for the first six months, and Ellzey, like so many New Orleans parents, found a confusing new education system in the city—roughly 80 schools to choose from, and many of them independently run charters with no ties to neighborhoods.
That’s when the upheaval to Lionel’s education deepened—he had to repeat 3rd grade—kicking off a steady run of discipline problems and putting him on an academic slide from which he and his mom have had to work hard to recover.
Now 19, Lionel is on course to graduate next year from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School. He and Ellzey credit one person for keeping him on track in the final sprint toward the commencement stage: Gary Briggs.
Briggs entered their lives in late 2015 when Ellzey’s employer—the International House Hotel—became the first company to buy into an innovative benefit program for its employees: paying for expert advice on their children’s education. The nonprofit program, called EdNavigator, helps parents—especially those who are low income—support and advocate for their children at school by assigning the adults a counselor, or “navigator,” who often comes to their workplaces to meet with them.
Launched two years ago in New Orleans, EdNavigator relies on the private sector as a conduit to employees—many of them lower-wage workers—who could benefit from its services. The nonprofit partners with 16 employers in the city, and its counselors currently work with about 250 parents who’ve signed up for their support services. The group will expand soon to Boston.
“There’s a huge misconception that the reason parents aren’t more involved in their child’s education is because they don’t care; it’s that they have to work to make a living, often more than one job, or with inflexible hours to be at school for meetings during the day,” said Timothy Daly, a co-founder of EdNavigator. “Our goal is to find ways to empower parents amid those demands.”
Ellzey, who now manages a team of housekeepers at International House, was one of the first parents to try EdNavigator. Her partnership with Briggs, she said, helped her identify problems Lionel was having in school, to ask his teachers for help, and to set goals that would motivate her son.
“There would be things I would get on Lionel to do, but when Gary would say essentially the same things, then he would listen,” Ellzey said.
“That’s true,” Lionel said of Briggs’ influence. “I know he just gets me.”
‘Right Thing to Do’
Parents play an essential role in ensuring students attend school and strive to do their best work. But there’s been conflicting research in recent years on the impact of parental involvement, as it’s just one component in the ecosystem of a child’s education.
While some research has found that parents helping their children with homework doesn’t help improve academics, other findings show that once parents have a grasp on what improvements need to be made, then academic test scores, grades, and discipline improve.
James A. Griffin, a deputy chief of child development and behavior research at the National Institutes of Health, has found in numerous studies over three decades that there is a positive correlation between parental involvement and students improving in their academic career and overall personal development.
“There is no one size fits all for a successful parental-involvement program,” Griffin said, acknowledging that educators often look to replicate programs that have proven to be successful without consideration of differences among various communities.
“There are many caveats depending on the background of the parent, such as their own level of education, financial resources, language barriers, and personal experience with the school system in their childhood, which programs need to take into account to see positive results,” Griffin said. “So any program that is sensitive to that customization is poised to do better.”
It is those barriers that confront many parents—especially those who are working-class, single, or both—that EdNavigator set out to overcome.
Founded by three former executives of TNTP, a teacher-training and advocacy group that helped recruit and place teachers in New Orleans’ schools after Katrina, the nonprofit pitches its program as a benefit that employers provide to employees, much like health insurance. A key distinction, the founders say, is that parents don’t have to miss work to talk to their counselors. Their navigators come to their workplaces for weekly office hours, and employers agree to provide the time for workers to see them.
And amid New Orleans’ vast array of school choice and a large population of working-class families, EdNavigator’s founders saw that parents needed more information to help them make decisions about schooling.
“One of the gaps that we saw is that there was a lot of attention on the supply side of school quality, making better options available, investing in teacher quality, and so forth, but not a lot of attention is paid to how to help parents navigate those new options or interpret all data that was given to them,” said David Keeling, a co-founder of EdNavigator and the nonprofit’s communications chief.
Keeling, Daly, and Ariela Rozman, the third co-founder of EdNavigator, had all worked in New Orleans and built some connections with private industry. The city’s tourism and hospitality sector—staffed by many lower-wage employees who may not stay in those jobs for long periods of time—was a good fit, they thought.
Indeed, federal data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the hospitality industry saw turnover as high as 70 percent in 2015 and 2016.
At the International House where Ellzey works, managers estimate the hotel loses out on nearly $4,000 in hiring, training, and other costs each time an employee leaves. To offer EdNavigator, hotels in New Orleans pay a $250 sign-up fee for each employee, then $37.50 monthly per employee, covering all costs so employees lose no pay. Some smaller employers pay as little as $10 per month per employee.
International House became the first employer to sign on. General Manager Amy Reimer said the hotel offers the service to all 60 of its workers, and so far, 14 parents use it. Not one has dropped out, she said.
“I’ve seen how the program gives them more peace, knowing their kids are going to be OK,” Reimer said. “When your life is good outside of the four walls of this hotel, then the likelihood your life inside these four walls here at work will be better.”
International House budgets about $7,000 for the program, Reimer said, noting how low that is compared with the financial impact of turnover.
“The money invested was small compared to the reduction in absenteeism and tardiness,” Reimer said. “It shows you care about retaining your employees and see them as a full person.”
A Miracle Worker
Over the past two years, the nonprofit has been building its roster of navigators, now at 11. The three founders also work with a handful of families.
EdNavigator looks for educators who are from the communities they will work in or have a sustained history with the area. Ideally, they are from similar backgrounds as the families they serve.
One navigator, Ileana Ortiz, previously worked in the Orleans Parish public defender’s office. Bilingual, Ortiz works closely with Spanish-speaking families, many of them immigrants from Honduras.
Ortiz said one of the first areas she has been able to help her families with is basic translation work, including getting schools to provide properly translated materials they send home with students.
“Where we can really come in is to show parents what they are entitled to, which they don’t always know, and are scared to ask,” Ortiz said.
Briggs, the navigator assigned to counsel parents who work at International House and at Tulane University, is a native of New Orleans who taught previously in the city’s schools. Like most of the families he advises, Briggs is black and a product of public schools in the city. He also experienced the upheaval of Katrina, temporarily relocating to the Houston area.
“I think people understand I get their struggle, as I’ve lived it,” Briggs said. “And in them, I see myself and feel it’s mutual.”
Ellzey calls Briggs a personal miracle worker. In addition to Lionel, she has two other children: a daughter who graduated from high school and opted to work over going to college, and 7-year-old Hilton, in 2nd grade.
Briggs has already set some goals with Ellzey’s guidance on what she wants Hilton to achieve. For now, that’s raising his math scores from failing to passing and eventually earning A’s and B’s in the subject, as he does in language arts.
Longer term, she wants Hilton to be ready for college, earning a four-year degree without first having to work or join the military if he doesn’t want to.
But it’s Briggs’ support of her and Lionel that has been so empowering.
Briggs intervened in a meeting with one of Lionel’s teachers to get more concrete steps he needed to take to raise his grades. He’s picked him up from school and arranged to get him tutoring. The two talk every week by phone or via text, Lionel said.
“He asks me how I am doing, beyond just school, and I know he cares. He at first was like a mentor or coach, but now he’s like family,” Lionel said.
“Having Gary around has been a relief for my mom, and for Hilton, it’s going to be great because we didn’t have someone like him when I was little to catch things before they got worse,” he said.
What’s more, Lionel said, Briggs’ support helped him pull his grades up from C’s and D’s to B’s and a few A’s.
Then, there was the clarity that Lionel got through his conversations with Briggs about what career he’d want to pursue.
His fascination with airplanes and aviation led to the two of them—with the support of his mom and stepdad—figuring out the best way he could pursue that interest: He will join the military after graduation.
As Ellzey put it, “I now know what to ask for and how to ask for it. For 10 minutes of Gary’s time, it’s become a lifetime of knowledge for my kids.”
The Walton Family Foundation supports coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education. The foundation promotes initiatives to expand parental choice and equal opportunity in education to help spur the bold transformation of the national K-12 system of public education. waltonk12.org
A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2017 edition of Education Week as A Benefit for Working Parents