Meet Parents Where They Are

How two community organizations empowered parents to drive change in their neighborhood schools

In 2013, PPS Woolslair, the neighborhood feeder school in Lawrenceville, was slated to close. Citing a strapped budget and low enrollment, the district planned to assign students to various other elementary schools instead. But parents were happy with their school, and wanted to save it…they just weren’t sure how to achieve something so huge. With the help of their neighborhood community organization, Lawrenceville United (LU), they learned how to organize, how to galvanize, and how to make a case to keep the school open. Today, Woolslair is a thriving STEAM magnet with an active group of parent volunteers. PEP Rally, a program of LU dedicated to parent engagement, has since expanded their focus to catalyze parents at Arsenal elementary and middle schools, too.

Start With Information

Amie Matson, director of Family and Youth Engagement at A+ Schools, says parent engagement has changed in recent years. Matson and her team at A+ helped the LU staff build skills organizing from a school perspective, since the community organization had previously not worked on public school issues. Matson knows how to get parents involved, and has also seen a shift in the ways engagement happens.

Gone are the days where bringing something to the bake sale was the only way to get involved. “People recognize that parent engagement can look very different based on availability or comfort level,” she says, and “it takes a lot of manpower to pull together these results. For a parent engagement initiative to be successful, there has to be a point person.” Schools looking to catalyze parents are best served by resourcing someone whose sole focus is parent engagement. PPS has a team of 6 personnel dedicated to family and community involvement, but in such a large district, some families need a bit more outreach. Especially if they’re looking to save a school from closure.

That’s where Matson comes in. A+ leads a program called Parent Nation, a parent-driven school volunteer initiative. Matson says the key to mobilizing families is first to inform them. “We tell parents about the different ways they can engage, whether that’s testifying at a public hearing or calling the parent hotline. We focus on the inform part and then engage parents about how to navigate the issues they bring to us.”

Matson explains that A+ staffers met with parents at PPS King on the North Side when those parents sought help getting more involved in school. During monthly meetings with A+, a group of parents mapped out what they wanted: help filling out clearances to volunteer in the school building, understanding standardized tests and the results, and lower suspension rates, to begin with.

Sometimes, parents—in particular parents from historically marginalized communities—feel ill equipped to offer help with grading math quizzes and laminating book reports, let alone taking on the systems behind huge decisions. But LU executive director Dave Breingan reminds us, “Parents are the experts on their kids. You don’t need a degree in pedagogy to know what’s best for your kid, and parents are the most invested in them. Getting parents front and center when decisions about those children are being made is really important!”

Schools and Families As Partners

“There’s no clear divide between school and home life,” Matson says. “There has to be an overlap of conversations and support between school and families.” Matson has seen how misinformation circulates, and also how important information falls through the cracks and never reaches families. Getting parents plugged in to school communication opens doors for different levels of engagement. “Even if it’s a light touch, engagement helps parents know what’s available to them and their children, what’s going on in their school building.”

She cites their successful campaign to get full-time nurses in every PPS school building for this school year, which arose from parents gathered together discussing another issue, and realizing they all shared concern over having part-time nurses. A+ helped parents pull together an advisory panel from UPMC Children’s Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House, and PPS Student Services to learn what was possible, then helped them testify at public hearings, and ultimately argue for the service they needed for their children.

“The people affected by decisions should be driving change,” says Breingan. His staff knocked on doors throughout the community to learn what change parents needed and how LU could support them. Since LU had no real infrastructure for parent engagement initially, they partnered with A+ to establish parent-teacher organizations at the three Lawrenceville schools until they had 20 parents volunteering for 9 hours a week. “We had a squad of parents doing any and everything,” Breingan says, including matching different language speakers with teachers at Arsenal, one of the district’s hub schools for English language learners. As parents actually went into the classrooms, they built a deeper understanding of the challenges present—parents saw huge class sizes of 30+ students and crowd control issues as a huge factor behind the suspension rates.

Build Skills So Parents Lead the Charge

Breingan points out a key difference between parent involvement and engagement, noting that school districts set the agenda for involvement (requesting chaperones for field trips, for example), while he views true engagement as parents participating at every level of a decision. LU and A+ helped engage parents to push for smaller class sizes, teaching them to write to newspapers, speak at hearings, and even bring their children to testify. Parents throughout the district helped push for the adoption of restorative practices, and LU offered funding to parents wanting to attend a conference to learn more about what that means. “Suspension rates have decreased at all of our neighborhood schools,” Breingan says, “but there’s lots of work to be done. Matson and her team at A+ are tackling this issue as well—they offer a formal training for parents and students twice a year to help them understand what restorative practices means, and they also offer something called “restorative parenting” to help families link these skills between school and home.

With support from PEP Rally, parents have created events like Family Fun Nights and STEAM nights in the school. They’ve learned to apply for grants for their community gardens and to host cultural nights to learn about the diverse nations and cultures represented at Arsenal.

Community Impact

Lawrenceville United realized that strong public schools are crucial to retaining families, improving quality of life, and the success of their neighborhood.

Breingan has observed that many community development organizations could take a stronger interest in public schools. He sees this as a gap worth closing, because strong public schools lead to healthy communities. Schools and community development organizations “need to work intentionally together,” he says, rather than excluding schools from community planning conversations. He’s seen first hand the spillover of positive advocacy when parents build the skills to fight for their community—Briengan says the same parents who worked to save their public school and reduce class sizes are now fierce advocates for affordable housing and improvements to city parks. These areas are all closely related, he says, and “if we want better outcomes for black and brown kids, for low income kids, we need to be aware of ways parents have been excluded” from the educational system.

LU and A+ hope to empower their neighbors to join the conversations, drive the decisions, and set the agenda in all sectors of their community.

Published August 23, 2018

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