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Parent University: Adults Hone Skills for Stronger Kids, Communities

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No one can be completely prepared for the trials and tribulations of every stage of parenthood. Now some schools are offering "Parent University" workshops and seminars to help parents better understand and deal with kids. On weekday evenings and Saturdays, these parents are going "back to school" -- sometimes with their children -- and the investment is paying off. Included: Tips from an expert in parent education!

"I think parents like the concept of the Parent University," Lori Laughlin explained. "Far too often parents are told they need training, which infers that they are lacking skills or knowledge as parents. The Parent University concept is driven by ideas and needs of local area parents."

Laughlin is state coordinator for the South Dakota Parent Resource Network in Sturgis, South Dakota, which organizes parenting workshops that appeal to parents of children of all ages. The philosophy of the "Parent University" programs is that parenting is an ongoing learning process.

Make the Grade
With Parent U
How can you set up an A+ parent university? Follow these tips from Lori Laughlin.
--- Listen to your planning committee. Saturday may be the best time for an event, or an evening instead.
--- Offer childcare. That can be a huge barrier to many parents. We have used a variety of resources to provide this -- a Girl or Boy Scout troop, volunteers from an honor society, and church groups.
--- Provide a meal. We have had universities at a school, and the school has cooked the meal for us to serve. We pay for this in a variety of ways, sometimes seeking community donations or charging a small fee.
--- Market the event in a variety of ways, including radio, the newspaper, and letters sent home with students.

"Parents should be valued members of the planning process, or we as professionals presume to know what they need," Laughlin told Education World. "We have had great success by offering parents 2-3 choices per session. That allows them to choose what interests them most."

Laughlin believes the best way to choose successful session topics is to ask parents. Her organization has offered seminars about Internet safety for families and had a pediatrician discuss growth and development. A presentation on Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder was very well received too, and police have addressed local drug issues. In addition, there have been sessions on helping children with homework, information about different cultures, and working through transition times such as entering kindergarten and moving to middle school.

Topics can be tailored to audiences of parents with children of a specific age, but Laughlin finds that many participants enjoy listening to parents of different aged children. Parents with older children can remember those early days of schools, and the parents of younger children benefit from advance information about transition times or certain events. According to Laughlin, sessions with "keynote speakers," people who are well known and regarded in the community, are also well attended.

"I think the most important thing is to make the event fun and timely," she observed. "Parents don't have the time or really the desire to be lectured to, so it is imperative to find speakers who are able to talk common sense and who offer good information."

Because most parents don't have an entire day to commit to this type of event, Parent University sessions usually occur on Saturday mornings or on weekday evenings. It's essential to put the word out, says Laughlin.

"A great technique is to have the kids be the ones to really encourage parents," she suggested. "There may be a reward for the students who have a parent or parents participate such as a book, some extra credit, or extended recess for a day. It is always difficult to find a perfect time in a calendar. Be respectful of community norms and values. Ask parents by doing a survey on topics and times during the first part of the school year."

More Parent Resources

Looking for more ideas for involving parents in your school? Be sure to check out our Parent Involvement article archive.


Mesa (Arizona) Public Schools recognizes that the foundation for children's success is in the home, and it created a Parent University outreach program to assist adults in the difficult and important job of helping children reach their full potential. Started in 1985 by former superintendent Dr. James Zaharis, the Mesa program now meets in junior high auditoriums that seat more than 250 participants. More than 4,000 parents attended classes last year. Other sessions are held at local school sites to accommodate parents who may not take advantage of offerings in central district locations.

"Our goal is to provide a forum for education and dialogue that encourages empowerment for adults and youth," said Peggy Senn, an MPS parent education specialist. "Parent University began as a Saturday conference each semester, with teachers, counselors and administrators leading sessions. More than 800 people came. Participants were turned away from popular classes, so it moved to a format of evening classes offered on a regular basis."

Mesa's Parent University evolves to meet the needs of its community. After each session, participants offer feedback in a survey that asks them to identify something they liked about the session, two or three things they have learned or actions they will take immediately as a result of the class, how the session could be improved, and what they would like to learn more about.

"Single sessions are held about every 2-3 weeks, spaced out over the semester," reported Senn. "Most activities are designed specifically for parents so they can acquire knowledge or gain affirmation of child development issues. The goal is to promote children's best development in the domains of language, social-emotional, cognitive, and physical growth."

The district has also conducted family music concerts in which parents and youth join for short sessions of singing and connection. Parents are invited to bring their infants, who are nine months and under, to the early childhood classes. A "Families in Action" six-week class invites parents and teens to come and learn together.

Join the Conversation

Have you had success organizing a Parent University program? Or have you questions about how to go about it? Click to join the conversation.

Topics are selected in a variety of ways. Staff members seek best practice instructors for presentations and in-service sessions, local instructors often express an interest in teaching specific topics, and at times requests come from parents themselves. The topic of discipline always draws a great deal of interest. In one instance, 96 parents signed up for a session on this topic, and 320 came!

"Presentations are done by local and national instructors, department and district staff who have a passion for assisting parents, and other child advocates," said Senn. "Selection is based on needs and interests stated by former participant surveys. Funding is also a factor."

Funding for classes is obtained in various ways. A small registration fee is charged, and the district has formed collaborations with local agencies such as Mesa United Way. Grants assist with seminar facilitator fees and materials, and there are scholarships for families to break down financial barriers.

In addition to newspaper and radio announcements, parents are encouraged to enroll through a brochure that is sent home with every student, announcements in the monthly district parent newsletter, and target fliers that go out to host schools and neighboring schools. The Title I department sends "free" tickets in English and Spanish to all families of its students.

"An important thing to keep in mind in organizing activities like Parent University is to key into the interests and needs of the community you serve," Senn advised. "Start with a topic such as 'Reading-Aloud' with Jim Trelease, as reading is the key to all learning. Discipline, communication, and connection sessions are also great ways to begin!"


"In existence for over ten years, the Supporting Teachers with Active Relationships (S.T.A.R.) committee is responsible for planning and implementing a variety of fun and educational activities to increase parent involvement," said Susan Protich. "Our goal is to send a strong message that parents are welcome in our school and that their support and assistance are needed for the success of our students."

As a veteran member of the S.T.A.R. committee at Jenkins Elementary School, Protich works with other members to organize five or six activities per school year that will encourage parents in Newport News, Virginia, to get to know the school and each other better. There are two chairpersons on the committee, a representative from each grade level, and an administrator. Events usually take place on evenings designated for regularly scheduled PTA meetings.

"Most of our activities are held in the classrooms, auditorium, hallways, and in the cafeteria," explained Protich. "They include parents, teachers, and students. Our workshop topics correlate with Standards of Learning and our School Improvement Plan. We have had Literacy Night, Holiday Family Project, Family Fun and Fitness Night, Cultural History Night, Young Author's Night, and Beach Night."

A favorite among parents and students is the holiday workshop, which is filled with hands-on activities. Similar to a large community health fair, Family Fun and Fitness Night is another very popular event. Once a theme is selected, teachers are responsible for organizing student performances and activities for parents of children at their grade levels. An exception to this is the Holiday Workshop, in which everyone gathers in the cafeteria to make a holiday craft. S.T.A.R. is financed with Title I funds.

"Last year we began a newsletter, and we selected a S.T.A.R. Parent of the Month, which was well received," Protich added. "We have discovered that it is beneficial to include a member of the PTA board in planning events. Having students involved in some type of performance, and offering refreshments and door prizes have also been effective. They bring a great turnout!"


Local professionals volunteer to offer presentations during the annual Parent University in Tampa Bay, Florida. Now in its fifth year, the event began when Lynn Romano brought the concept to the area from Lake Forest, Illinois. Parent University is planned and executed one year at a time by a group of dedicated volunteers.

"Countryside High School Parent Teacher Student Association is the home for Parent University in Tampa Bay, but many other schools, businesses, organizations, clubs, and individuals contribute sponsorship," Romano explained. Parent University is an all-day event that features breakfast and lunch. During meal periods a discount book fair, community resources fair, and summer camp fair are offered. The day consists of four or five one-hour sessions.

Sessions are open to parents, guardians, grandparents, teachers, childcare providers, and others who care for children. Topics are selected with the help of feedback from parent-teacher organizations, schools, teachers, therapists, counselors, clubs, government licensing boards, and others. Businesses, PTAs, groups, and individuals donate monetary support for the program.

"To attract participants, we offer variety, diverse points of view, and controversial topics in addition to the usual topics of interest," said Romano. Parent University has workshop selections that are both informative and intriguing. Some recent titles include "Why Isn't My Child More Like MeAnd Now What Do I Do?" and "Is Homework a Nightmare in Your Home?" The organizers of this event don't shy away from tough subjects such as teens and sex, bullying, and "Why Was It Okay for YouBut It's Not Okay for Me?"


San Diego Parent University
Learn about this district initiative in California that offers classes and seminars that target improving achievement among students in preschool through grade 12.

Parent University
This program in the Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools in Georgia is designed to build a bridge between schools and the community.  

Article by Cara Bafile
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