A. Karen Marler grew up in the same low-income neighborhood in Dade City, Florida, where she now serves as principal of Lacoochee Elementary School. She understands the challenges facing the area's families but remained disappointed by dismal parent involvement numbers because she also knows what a positive impact parents can have on their children's education.
So to educate some of the parents about the school system and educational program -- and to build their confidence so they feel comfortable volunteering -- Marler created Parent University. The first class graduated in April, and Parent University alumni are eager to help out at Lacoochee.
"They have a voice now; it's so exciting to see them empowered," said Marler of the Parent University graduates. "Now teachers don't know what to do -- they have so many volunteer parents."
Marler started the program in January after having had little success getting parents involved in school activities, especially Hispanic parents. A Title I school, Lacoochee's student population is about 48 percent Hispanic. She hit upon the idea for a university-type program that not only informs parents about the school system and their children's curriculum, but also gives them a sense of accomplishment about what they learned.
"A lot of our Hispanic parents -- and all of our parents -- value education," Marler told Education World. "I knew what they needed to help support their kids, but even when I offered to hear from them, they didn't come -- they needed the confidence."
"Everyone likes to be celebrated, and so many of our parents do not have a high school diploma in their hands," Marler continued. "I thought, let's do something to help them understand the education system and help empower them to help their own kids and instill a sense of pride in their achievements."
The programs started with nine parents, grew to 35, and ended with 21 graduates, all women and most of them Hispanic. Marler and the staff devised a system that allowed parents to earn points for helping at school, completing assignments, attending community events or PTO meetings, and any kind of interaction that assisted the school, community, or their children. Depending on the number of points parents accumulated, they could earn an associates, bachelors, or masters degree from Parent University. The points also carried over to next school year, just like college credits.
The school held a commencement ceremony for the graduates, complete with gowns, mortar boards, and tassels -- and named a valedictorian, the graduate who accumulated the most points. The top graduate earned the highest number of points by recruiting other parents -- a total of 12. She gave a speech in Spanish, and her husband and children were sitting in the audience, Marler said. She said she wanted to show her children what you could do with some effort and that dreams could come true.
The staff hosted a formal dinner for the graduates and their families, and the school's teacher of the year waited on tables. A couple in Tampa who read about the program in a newspaper article was so impressed that they donated centerpieces for all the tables and corsages for the graduates.
The men were so proud of their wives, she said, in part because the women defied a stereotype. Particularly coming from a high-poverty area, people assume they are not capable.
Now the kids are so proud of their parents, and the parents are trying to help the children, noted Dr. Clara Barlow, an instructional assistant at the school who works with many of the Spanish-speaking parents. Now parents understand what kids are talking about at school. One mom said the most important thing is that now she can show her kids that she is worried about their education.
As part of the Parent University curriculum, students learned about the school system, what their children were studying, what they were required to know by the end of the year, how they could help their children, and even about local and state government. Parents watched DVDs on computers about certain topics and answered questions about them, and those without computers could come to school to do the work. Parents now are coming in much more often to use the computers, added Marler. The school provided childcare so parents could attend workshops and in-service programs.
Marler also asked some parents what would help them to get more involved at the school, and some said they needed to learn English. So the school provided English instruction and resources, and now many of the parents are able to read English at the first-and second-grade levels and read to their children. The school offered some math instruction and discovered a mother who is very gifted in math, Marler said.
Most had some conversational English skills, but lacked the academic language, she added. They didn't know how to help [their children], or they lacked common language [with their children]. Parents were able to set goals as well.
The school also took 31 students plus parents to visit the state legislature in Tallahassee. The children and parents sat in the legislators' seats and participated in mock voting. Many of the parents had never been exposed to this, Marler noted. Many parents also are putting their new knowledge about government to work. At a public meeting about the county budget, 37 of the 42 people who attended were parents from Lacoochie, and many were from Parent University.
Marler especially wanted to reach out to these parents because she knows how diminishing assumptions about low-income families can be. When she attended high school in the area, students from her part of town were not allowed to pick their own courses. They were plugged into basic math and English because staff members assumed that because they were poor, they were not capable of challenging work.
Part of her inspiration comes from motivational speaker Dr. Wayne Dyer, who related a story about coming home from school one day crying because he thought he heard a teacher call him a scurvy elephant in a conversation with another staff member. When Dyer's mother called the school to investigate, she learned that the teacher had called him a disturbing element.
I decided I could be a disturbing element in a positive way, Marler noted.
Staff members have noticed that many parents now are more willing to ask questions. I work with parents who speak Spanish, and I see the difference, said Barlow. Before, they were kind of quiet; they were scared to ask questions. Now they have a lot of questions and are not afraid to talk to teachers.
Marler hopes to see Parent University's enrollment increase and diversify next year; and she is looking forward to enrolling the first male student. The staff also is planning field trips for parents to the same places students visit, such as the local aquarium and the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, so the parents are familiar with these institutions and can talk to their children about them.
Lacoochie so far has been able to fund Parent University with its Title I funds, money from the board of education, and some revenue from fundraising. It hasn't cost a lot of money, Marler said, but she is looking for some business partners to help the program in the future. Establishing and running a university-type program is labor-intensive, she admitted. "It is a lot of work, but so worth it," she added. "It builds capacity for leadership and they [parents] take charge. The parents are so willing to be a part of their children's lives -- if you can find a way to reach them."
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