Families & the Community

Parent Power

By Linda Jacobson — October 22, 2003 9 min read
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A Kentucky institute takes seriously the proposition that families are key partners in learning.

Huddled around banquet tables in a hotel ballroom here, the participants begin to list on large sheets of paper the obstacles that keep parents from getting involved in their children’s schools.

A lack of transportation, economic problems, cultural differences, and administrative resistance are some of the ideas they jot down. Others include feelings of intimidation, low educational levels, a lack of after-school care, and evening work shifts.

Drawing up the lists is one of the first assignments for trainees in this year’s Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership. The intensive, three-weekend program is designed to equip Kentucky parents with detailed knowledge about the state’s school accountability system and give them the confidence to ask school officials tough questions about student performance.

The concerns they write down are familiar to the 21 women in this room on a Friday in August. After all, they are the reasons some of these Central Kentucky parents sought out the experience of attending the institute.

“I like our school—I don’t want to go back and burn it down and build it again,” says Genie Graf, a parent of four, including triplets at an elementary school in Midway. “But parent involvement is something we don’t have.”

But the institute’s curriculum goes well beyond preaching parent involvement. A project of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence—an influential, statewide citizens’ group whose recommendations helped shape the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act—the institute shows parents how to delve into the mounds of data on their own schools and use that information to set priorities among many issues that need attention.

Since the institute began in 1997, more than 1,100 parents have been trained.

What sets this program apart from most workshops aimed at parents is that each graduate of the institute is expected to commit to planning and executing a project that addresses an area of weakness in his or her school or district.

And it’s the way Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership is structured that has made it an example for other parent advocacy groups throughout the country, according to experts. The requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act have also led parent and citizen organizations to seek out the program’s proven style of parent training.

“The comprehensiveness of the program provides a really nice context if you are already an involved parent,” says Margaret Carnes, the managing director of Charlotte Advocates for Education, a local education fund in Charlotte, N.C., that is considering implementing a similar program. “I’m frequently dismayed with the fact that the depth of information that we need to do our work is not readily available, so the way CIPL is constructed is very appealing to me.”

In addition to being expected to use what they’ve learned to benefit their children’s schools, the Kentucky graduates are assigned mentors to guide them through the process and to help them when they encounter a less-than-enthusiastic reception from school administrators.

“Parents aren’t going to be effective if they show up on a principal’s doorstep saying, ‘You have a problem, and I’m here to help you fix it,’ ” says Gregg Fowler, whose children attend the 1,200-student Noe Middle School in Louisville. An institute graduate in 2001, Fowler initiated a series of workshops at his school to teach parents about the writing process and how students will be assessed on their writing.

In addition to improving some measure of student achievement, organizers of the institute say, the parent projects should attempt to involve more parents in the school, and have some lasting effect.

That’s what Elizabeth Gardner, a mother of two boys, is hoping will happen with the parent room that she has helped establish at Perryville Elementary, a 300-pupil school in the central part of the state.

“Every time you had a question, there was nowhere to ask it,” says Gardner, who has collected educational video games for children to use, resources for parents to check out, and free pizza coupons to reward parents for volunteering at the school. “I wanted to serve, and I wanted my school to be a good school for my children.”

Gathered in a heavily air-conditioned meeting room here at a Sheraton hotel, just off the freeway in the middle of Kentucky’s horse-farm country, the parents are handed a survey designed to help them name their particular learning styles. Using descriptions inspired by Harvard University researcher Howard Gardner’s work on “multiple intelligences,” the participants pinpoint their strengths and then begin to organize themselves into small groups based on their ways of learning.

Training parents to understand the complexities of a state education law or to serve on a school-based council is an important aspect of parent involvement, says one expert.

“When I daydream, I like to count things,” says Karen Mills, one of two parents in the logical or mathematical category. On the other side of the room, the members of the chatty “interpersonal” group appear as if they’ve known one another for years.

The exercise is not just an opportunity to learn more about themselves; it’s the parents’ first chance to use data to tell a story and offers a preview of some of the work they’ll do over the course of the program using data broken down according to student subgroups.

So everyone can see the number of people with each learning style, Beverly N. Raimondo, the institute’s director, puts up easel paper on the wall for a bar chart. The parents create the bars by each sticking an adhesive note under the appropriate style. The results show that most participants consider themselves either “intrapersonal” learners, meaning they like to work alone, or musical.

Raimondo’s frequent use of small-group activities allows the parents to get to know one another quickly.

During their first two days in the program, which totals six days in two-day, weekend chunks, the parents often spend meals and break times recounting frustrating experiences with their children’s schools.

One parent explains how difficult it was for teachers at her school to identify why her daughter was struggling with reading in 2nd grade. Another talks about trying to make sure a school is providing necessary services to her adopted child, who is terminally ill.

“There are definitely people who come [to the institute] because they have a particular complaint,” says Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee. (Sexton is also a trustee of Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.)

Those one-issue parents are never screened out of the program, and Sexton and Raimondo maintain that it’s better to have a well-informed parent who is concerned mostly about just one issue than one who is misinformed about education laws and policies.

Their goal is also to gradually move those disillusioned parents beyond their own experiences to a point where they are looking at how successful their schools are with all students.

Joan Dunnigan says she attended the institute because she wasn’t getting anywhere when she tried to talk to school officials about a daughter who she felt was “adrift” in her classes. The program, she says, taught her “how the system works, who they are accountable to, and what they are trying to achieve.”

One of the tools Raimondo uses to get parents to think of solutions is the list of barriers to parent involvement listed on the sheets of easel paper. Their next task is to rephrase the problem into a challenge.

Those who said parents didn’t have enough access to school activities turned their problem into a goal for the school of giving parents plenty of advance notice of events and clearly communicating to them what they would be expected to do at those activities.

“The venting and the sharing is important, but they also have to talk about what they like about their schools,” Raimondo says.

Training parents to understand the complexities of a state education law or to serve on a school-based council is an important aspect of parent involvement, says Joyce Epstein, an education professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and an expert on parent-school partnerships.

But, she adds, such programs don’t necessarily help those parents who aren’t inclined to move into leadership roles. “Most parents don’t really want to be in leadership positions,” Epstein says, “but they want very much to know what is going on with their children.”

A part of the institute's goal is to move disillusioned parents beyond their own experiences to a point where they are looking at how successful their schools are with all students.

That’s why she recommends a variety of models of parent involvement. Her National Network of Partnership Schools works to come up with ways for all parents—not just an outspoken few—to feel connected to their children’s schools.

“We’re really trying to get schools and districts to see parent involvement as a component of school organization,” Epstein says.

Still, Raimondo says the Commonwealth Institute and the Prichard Committee don’t apologize for the fact that they are focused on developing leaders.

The goal, she says, is that parents trained through the institute will point other parents to the resources they need to help their children. That, in turn, will get more parents involved in schools in more meaningful ways.

Sometimes, parents who are also teachers or education officials attend the institute—participation that can lead to improved relationships between schools and parents. While they are asked to come in their roles as parents first, Raimondo says, the experience can help those education employees see the bureaucracy through an average parent’s eyes.

“It helped me to understand that audience better,” says Hunt Helm, who works as a spokesman for the state education department in Frankfort. “It was good to see what certain language means to them and doesn’t mean to them.”

Even though institute graduates are given up to two years to complete their projects, a few parents each year fail to follow through with their plans, Raimondo says. The institute is currently trying to improve the way it tracks participants’ progress and determines whether the projects have made a difference.

Some of that work is being done by Nancy Hamilton, the executive director of Apple Corps, a local education fund in Atlanta. Hamilton would like to see the Kentucky model copied in Atlanta with a built-in evaluation.

Such a pilot project, she says, would not only help Atlanta, but would also give the Prichard Committee data the Kentucky organization can use to show funders of the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership.

While several major foundations originally supported the institute, which costs about $700,000 annually to operate, many have moved on to other concerns. This year, the program cut the number of institutes it runs around the state from seven to five. And parents embarking on their projects can now apply for mini-grants of only $250 each, instead of $500.

Meanwhile, the institute has launched a consulting enterprise, called Parent Leadership Associates, to teach organizations like Hamilton’s how to give parents the kind of training available in Kentucky, but tailored to specific state needs.

“There is a fair amount of interest in doing what we do,” Raimondo says. “What seems to be the tripping point is finding some money.”

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including governance, management, and labor relations—is supported by the Broad Foundation.

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