PARENTS IDENTIFY MANY APPROACHES TO SCHOOL SUCCESS IN KY.
AUGUST 2020 \\\\\ COMMONWEALTH INSTITUTE FOR PARENT LEADERSHIP
Understanding homework can be hard enough. Energized parents in Paducah, however, are pursuing a bigger plan for bolstering school success — expanding opportunities for adults to explore family dynamics, discuss child development and grasp education issues while also encouraging students to think about the social and emotional factors that help them focus and achieve.
Seven parents from Paducah and McCracken County were among 40 Fellows who completed the Prichard Committee’s Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership this year. Participants committed to organize programs in their local communities to expand parent and family involvement in school success. Interests and circumstances led the Fellows to see many routes to fortify families and help schools grow.
In Paducah, Heather Anderson, a mother of two, is still working to organize and expand “parent cafes,” a gathering where adult family members can learn about ways to strengthen families and help children be ready to learn. While the gatherings were launched in western Kentucky several years ago, the 2020 CIPL program recharged enthusiasm.
Providing a forum — and food — lets parents, grandparents and others pursue learning and discussions of issues like parent resilience, positive social connections and support networks. The sessions, which Anderson said took place in person before virus protocols forced a switch to videoconferencing, built new bonds and helped participants feel better equipped to work with educators and their children.
“Thoughtful interactions come out of this,” said Anderson, who works as a student services administrator for the Paducah school district. “When you leave, you feel energized and inspired.” Her CIPL experience encouraged her to create similar “cafe” sessions for students that emphasize building stronger social-emotional skills and reflecting on personal development. She said that the student sessions naturally launched conversations about tapping leadership potential.
CLASS OF 2020 FELLOWS from the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership gathered for a virtual graduation event in May.
For Julie Tennyson, a Paducah parent with two children who works as a lawyer, the parent leadership institute offered a way to understand Kentucky education issues and pinpoint areas that need greater support.
“We’re very disconnected from a lot of resources and what goes on with education in Frankfort. Learning what’s going on is sometimes difficult,” she said. The institute allowed her to learn about resources that can help parents become stronger advocates. After participating in the parent leadership institute, Tennyson plans to connect local families to non-profits and advocates for issues such as special education and have their voices heard in policy discussions.
IDENTIFYING LOCAL CONCERNS
Morehead parent Annette Hines applied for the CIPL program despite having participated years ago. She said that the first time she experienced the program, she learned more about the state’s learning standards and ways the state education department measured results. This time, she said the focus allowed her to become a stronger local education advocate.
She and another Rowan County Fellow hosted a Groundswell Gathering — a community conversation utilizing the Prichard Committee Community Profile — at a popular local coffee shop. The session included Bill Redwine, a candidate for the state House, Dr. Jay Morgan, the Morehead State University president, parents and local educators. Hines said the institute provided specific assistance for organizing local events and facilitating conversations to drive local action.
“Everybody wanted to be heard and develop action steps,” Hines said. A second session online allowed for “breakout rooms” offering focused conversations on specific areas of education, from preschool to college. Another session is expected this fall.
Hines said the experience illuminated some clear local concerns. “Daycare has become a huge issue in eastern Kentucky,” she said. The conversations have proven a popular way to identify and discuss community needs and goals. “If we can get people out, their voice comes through.”
Over more than 20 years, the CIPL program has provided in-depth, free training to more than 2,500 Kentucky Fellows. Beyond local projects, many participants have gone on to be elected to serve on local school councils, local school boards or be appointed to the State Board of Education.
“Identifying as a parent leader is a real step towards making Kentucky a bright place in the future,” said Brigitte Blom Ramsey, President and CEO of the Prichard Committee. “This is a way to make a real difference in the lives of individuals and families in our Fellows’ own communities and on behalf of the entire state.”
BUILDING UP AREA OF NEED
In Lexington, Penny Christian is well aware of the potential behind organizing parents and family members. As president of the county’s PTA organization, she is a longtime advocate who has also been deeply involved in Prichard Committee training. She joined the CIPL program to enhance her knowledge and use organizers and participants as a sounding board for addressing equity issues.
“You get involved and pursue whatever you love to do,” she said, noting that education is an area with many needs, allowing parents and family members many ways to make a mark. “You take that, run with it, and go as far as you need to go.”
Christian focused her parent leadership project on increasing the engagement of men in education. Teachers and administrators often identify mothers or other maternal figures as the primary contact for messages related to students. Christian said the result is that fathers, grandfathers, brothers and other male figures are overlooked, even though research shows that male engagement connects with student success.
For Enid Wohlstein, getting involved in CIPL provided an opportunity to dive into an issue that had stoked her curiosity, particularly as her son approaches a transition from elementary school to middle school. She wondered what social-emotional competencies fourth- and fifth-grade teachers see as strengths among their students compared to the skills that middle school counselors identified as contributing most to student success. She tailored her project to the school her son attends and the middle school where he will go next year.
She conducted a survey that showed that an accurate self-perception, organization skills, confidence, and impulse control are areas where elementary school students might benefit from improvement. The results were e-mailed to teachers in mid-March with plans for continued virtual conversations, said Wohlstein, who works for the Kentucky Virtual Library.
You get involved and pursue whatever you love to do. You take that, run with it, and go as far as you need to go.
—Parent Penny Christian
“This let me do more of a deep dive,” Wohlstein said. After getting involved in school-level parent roles, joining the parent leadership institute was a way to feel like she can play a stronger role in her stepdaughter’s and son’s education. “It’s a way to see how I can be involved and keep knowledge fresh.”
“Education is a huge edifice that can be frightening,” added Heather Anderson of Paducah. “The institute is an easy way to dip your toes into organizing.”
Dan and Cayley Ginn of northern Kentucky learned about the Prichard Committee’s work and decided the CIPL program might be a helpful way to get involved in local education issues, even though they are not yet parents.
“We are passionate about lifelong learning and growth opportunities for students as well as creating community,” Cayley said. Both applied and were accepted to the parent leadership institute and opted to pursue a project that is a long-range challenge: creating a website that identifies local education options. They started by trying to list options in their county — from child care to schools to summer camps or community youth programs.
The Ginns said that the feeling of intimidation that many families feel toward school can often begin with being ill-prepared to understand the full range of options.
“Everyone’s goal is to help each student reach their potential,” Dan said. “This program shows you how many pieces are involved, but also able to see how the pieces can come together.”
While Dan works as an academic adviser at Northern Kentucky University and Cayley is an fifth-grade teacher, they said they gained a great deal from learning about the perspective and experiences of other CIPL Fellows. Training in creating events that will inform and involve others was also a beneficial learning experience.
“The biggest selling point is that you are set up in a way that, by the end, you are going to feel more comfortable advocating for your child or speaking up for teachers,” Cayley said. “You can see people growing more confident. It’s great to watch people find their voice.”
Applications are now being accepted for the 2021 Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership Fellowship. The program is a proven way to dig deeper into family engagement and join the Groundswell of education champions. Participants complete a one-hour virtual orientation in October and participate in webinars from October through April.
The Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership was founded in 1997 by the late Beverly Nickell Raimondo. It now counts more than 2,500 Fellows across the state. With financial support from LG & E and KU Foundation, St. Elizabeth Healthcare, State Farm, and Toyota, the institute continues to equip Kentucky families with skills to advocate for excellent schools and education for all children.
PARENTS AND FAMILY MEMBERS discuss local education data at a Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership retreat.
TOP PHOTO: Parent Annette Hines of Morehead hosts a local Groundswell Gathering to build local awareness and support for collaboration around academic improvements.