LOCAL PARENT LEADERS INVEST IN SUCCESS FOR ALL CHILDREN

When five of the 14 Northern Kentucky participants at parent leadership training last fall turned out to be from one school, it quickly became obvious that their ultimate project could have a big impact.

Indeed, Beechwood Elementary is seeing the outcome of a cohesive group of parents eager to learn more about how school works and how they can be more involved. In April, about 50 parents showed up for the first installment of Beechwood’s new Parent University, which taught parents about the basics of Kentucky academic standards, how schools decide their curriculum, how state testing works, and more.

This summer, the group has expanded efforts to students to continue reading and writing to avoid a weakening of skills over summer vacation. And next year, plans are already set for new Parent University gatherings that will go deeper on what students (and parents) need to know about math and reading.

The five parents, all fellows of the Governor’s Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership, the Prichard Committee’s signature parent engagement effort, said their training built the nucleus for a powerful expansion of deeper parent understanding and involvement at their school.

“We all signed up individually, but once we were together, we quickly knew that we needed to coordinate what we would try to do in our school,” said Maria Sanders, the mother of a fourth grader.

Rather than feeling swarmed by the GCIPL parents, school leaders were quick to see the opportunity for a big impact and suggested creating a wide-reaching educational forum for all parents, plus leadership on a program to expand summer learning. The close working relationship between the GCIPL grads and the school has helped the efforts gain traction, parents said.

Anne Chikwenhere, the mother of a fourth grader and kindergartener, said the group approach has strengthened the impact of the GCIPL and expanded the horizons for what the parents can accomplish. “The training was eye opening, and each of us felt ready to talk about what we could do that would help all of the kids at our school, help parents see the right way to be an advocate for their child and others, and allow all of that to become part of our school’s culture — what Beechwood is,” she said.

The Beechwood Parent University kick-off included widespread publicity and outreach, including a Facebook page and posting the event to YouTube so parents would couldn’t be at the event could still watch.

The parent-led summer’s literacy efforts have included partnerships with the city officials in Fort Mitchell to connect the school effort with civic summer family night events as well as coordinating with the Kenton County library’s summer reading program.

“We weren’t sure how all of this would go over with a broader audience. We know that parents in Beechwood are engaged, but all of us are also overextended, but we have seen a lot of appreciation and interest,” said Sanders, a trained lawyer who now works as a law firm business manager and yoga instructor in addition to her growing parent leadership efforts.

Chikwenhere said the strong working relationship between the parents and the school’s leadership has been encouraging and important. Seeing the interest of a wider group of parents for information and involvement, as well as the collaborative spirit of educators, has been great encouragement for the GCIPL fellows.

“The desire to help every child grow, really understand the school’s goals, be able to translate the jargon in the school improvement plan — it’s lit a fire for me that I didn’t know I had,” said Chikwenhere, a regional finance manager for Amazon. This spring, she was elected a parent member of the Beechwood Elementary school council.

PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE

Using parent leadership training to build the ranks of informed and active parents has also paid dividends in the growth and work of the Owsley County Parent Task Force. The group was launched and has been cultivated by 2012 GCIPL fellow Sue Christian, a family and community engagement specialist for Berea College’s Partners for Education program.

The task force is now made up of 13 members, eight of whom have become GCIPL fellows. The group’s mission is to work for the success of all students, not just their own children.

“I wanted to get parents really invested in making things better at school for all students, parents, and teachers,” Christian said. “We have a lot of children in our school district who don’t have an advocate. This group realizes we make things better for everyone when we address the suffering of all children and families.”

The Owsley County Parent Task Force, which also works closely with school and district  leaders, has focused on five specific efforts: boosting teacher morale for student success; supporting grandparents who are raising children; math enrichment and support; anti-bullying efforts, and supporting families of special needs students. In the course of its work, task force parents have become school council members and taken on other leadership roles — and filled gaps where the school system needs help, like helping to distribute laptop computers at the start of school or enlisting volunteers to help students understand college applications.

As in GCIPL, the Owsley group has also worked to acquaint more parents with school fundamentals like standards, testing, planning, and student results. “I’m very proud to see how parents are coming to the table with knowledge,” Christian said, adding that many parents need such information to feel comfortable approaching educators and addressing school issues.

Recently, the Owsley County effort has turned its attention to planning for the future, seeking a community agency that can handle financial and organizational issues and naming a new leader with children in the district so that Christian, whose children have graduated, can serve as an adviser rather than quarterback.

“We have solidified ourselves by being consistent,” Christian said.

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