By Yesy Robles
Since October 2016, my organization, Partnership for Educational Justice (PEJ), has been hosting education advocacy workshops for parents with our colleagues at Students for Education Reform-Minnesota (SFER Minn).
We set out to give parents a place to come together and learn how to advocate for their children’s educational success. We provided tangible tips from experts who have worked for decades in schools and with parents. The workshops are also beginning to build a community that can support parents’ engagement with their children’s schools and the Minnesota public education system.
Throughout the workshops a few key themes emerged, illustrating how important it is to give parents the information, tools, and community they need (and desire) to advocate for their kids. Below are some of my key take-aways from this truly inspiring workshop series.
Parents want a safe space to share their experiences.
At our workshops, parents from different cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds came together to talk about successes and challenges at their children’s schools. It was remarkable to watch chairs shift closer as the conversations got deeper. Parents facing similar hurdles freely gave advice and shared phone numbers of organizations and people that were better able to offer solutions. Invisible barriers and walls came down for two hours as parents realized they were there for a common purpose.
There is useful information about public schools online, but it is difficult to navigate.
Parents said one of the most valuable parts of our workshops was the presentation showing how to navigate the state’s website, find information about their children’s schools, and most importantly, how to interpret the data.
Once parents could see suspension rates and academic proficiency rates, there was context for parents who previously believed their children were the only ones seen as “the problem” in the classroom. Realizing that they were not alone, parents shared personal stories about their own children – typically students of color – being suspended for minor offenses. Parents wanted to know what school administrators were doing to reduce suspension rates and ensure students were on track in math and reading, and many identified this as an area of advocacy they were interested in pursuing.
Parents want to partner with teachers to enrich their children’s learning – but they don’t always feel supported.
Many parents at our workshops talked about an invisible tension with teachers. Some felt that they were notified too late when their children were falling behind, or that they were only contacted about behavioral problems, others felt that teachers viewed them as a nuisance. They all wanted to establish a partnership with teachers and school administrators, but didn’t know how.
Bringing in educators to show parents how to more effectively communicate with teachers and principals was a huge success. Parents heard tips and practiced what to do and say when teachers call them about behavior problems. The speakers discussed the appropriate school contacts when problems needed to be escalated, and created a “what to do when…” information guide for parents.
Parents were also guided in conversations about establishing a meaningful parent-teacher partnership to support their children’s education. They brainstormed about how to be part of the “team” so many parents hoped to create with their school. One mother mentioned that she received a short weekly text message from her child’s teacher to let her know that everything was on track, or a phone call if her child was beginning to struggle. Other parents were inspired to set up regular communication before problems arise.
When parents learned how to engage better with their children’s school as a partner, there was an immediate sense of empowerment in the room. Parents were eager to make use of the tips they learned that day, thanks to the educators who volunteered their time for our workshops.
There is a budding parent support network in Minnesota.
Many parents entered these workshops beyond frustrated with their child’s school. It was so gratifying to see these same parents filled with hope for a more collaborative path forward.
The conversations also created a unifying atmosphere. More outspoken parents offered to attend school meetings as an advocate with the shyer ones. Parents mingled and exchanged phone numbers and email addresses. Some asked me after the workshops if they could organize a group that meets once a month. Parents want to be active in their children’s education, and they will work together to achieve this.
I’m proud that our workshops are starting conversations, bringing parents together, and empowering them to take a key role in their children’s schools. With their children’s best interests in mind, there is no limit to what these parents can do!
Partnership for Educational Justice and Students for Education Reform – Minnesota organized the parent advocacy workshop series running from October 2016 through April 2017. The two groups are holding the final workshop in Minneapolis on April 20, where they will discuss the State’s teacher employment statutes that have been challenged in a lawsuit filed by four Minnesota parents, and offer opportunities for other parents to support the lawsuit. This spring, the parents will be back in court to appeal the trial court’s dismissal of their case. Click here to register for the information session. Space is limited; childcare and snacks will be provided.