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Parent Academy aims to help adults get involved in their kids' schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 26, 2012 - Getting parents involved in their children’s education is one the biggest factors that reformers say would help schools succeed.

The Parent Academy is designed to show adults how the system works.

The academy is part of an effort by the Children’s Education Alliance of Missourito achieve its agenda of changes in education: transparency and accountability, more school choice and teacher quality. Kate Casas, the group’s state policy director, said that the idea came from calls she and others received from parents on a variety of issues, from legal questions to complaints about the food being served in the school cafeteria.

“We were handling those calls as they came,” she said, “and the longer we were here, the more and more calls we were getting. What we realized was that we didn’t have any formal way to address their concerns, and we certainly weren’t able to spend enough time with them to show them how they could be effective in their child’s classroom.

"If they are looking for advice on what their options might be, parents are often confused when they start looking into things like charter schools. And it is confusing. There is no one central location, no one pamphlet on how they can make the right choice.”

The academy is designed to be two sessions to train parents on how to get more involved with their children’s schooling, from the building level up to the state capital. From understanding the problems that students face to learning grassroots organizing techniques to help bring about changes, the effort ultimately could lead to the formation of parent unions, with chapters across Missouri, to take a more systematic approach to improving the state’s schools.

Casas said the movement is based on similar efforts across the country. She said she spent time in California observing how the Parent Revolution initiative there has worked to pass legislation such as the parent trigger, which would help turn discontent with school performance into action to change how schools operate.

That kind of community organizer model helped shape what the Parent Academy is trying to accomplish, Casas said.

“It’s a long process,” she said. “It’s not something where we’ll get thousands of people involved in a year. But that wasn’t really the goal. The goal was getting people involved at a grassroots level, where the problems are, not necessarily focusing on what is going on in Jefferson City or in Washington.”

Despite the common complaint that parents aren’t willing to get involved in their kids’ schooling, Casas said that many adults would be happy to become more active if they had a better idea of how to go about it.

“It’s not that they don’t feel welcome as much as that they feel welcome as long as they can fit into their school’s schedule,” she said. “What we hear a lot is that schools value parent engagement, but they value parents who come to PTO meetings or show up at parent-teacher conferences. They want parents to bring snacks to Halloween parties.

“That is how schools view parent engagement. If it’s anything outside that box of what schools value, parents may feel that the people they are going to meet with know more about the system than they do. Nobody has ever said to me that they think schools are intentionally doing that. It’s just kind of the nature of school systems. Parents are just looking for an ally that knows the system as well as the people who work in the system. That is where we are trying to help them.”

Dinner and discussion

At 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, adults began gathering in a brightly colored room at the Youth Learning Center at 4471 Olive Street for the first session of the latest Parent Academy training. Most had been recruited because their children attend the center, which provides after-school and summer programs in a variety of areas including literacy, math and technology such as robotics and video game design.

After helping themselves to dinner, they split into two groups and went upstairs for training sessions led by two staff members of the Children’s Education Alliance, program manager Lisa Clancy and Peter Franzen, director of development (Franzen previously worked in development at the St. Louis Beacon.)

In his session, Franzen told about a dozen adults – mostly women – what the alliance’s platform and goals are, then opened the floor to a discussion of the school issues that concern them. The responses were quick and varied:

  • The need for counselors
  • Get back to basics
  • Help get children to focus and reduce distractions
  • Make it clear what students need to learn at what age
  • Don’t rely so much on standardized testing
  • Make sure expectations for city students are the same as those for students in the suburbs

As parents dug deeper into the various topics, it became clear that the problems the program was designed to address are real: The adults definitely wanted to help their children succeed, but they often didn’t know how or where to begin.
In one case, the response led to tears, as one mother admitted she had quit school early and while she may be able to help her young child with homework now, it won’t be long before she won’t be able to keep up.

Another mother said her son suffered from ADHD and had been kicked out of four schools. He’s a sweet kid, she insisted, but she didn’t know how to find the resources to get him the help he needs.

Franzen acknowledged their concerns and talked about the paradox that soon becomes clear in many situations involving parents and schools. They expect the people who are the experts to recognize and correct problems, but when the results don’t follow, many adults don’t feel they are qualified enough to speak out.

“We’re in a tough spot,” he said.

He noted that the promises that schools make often collide hard with reality, and it may be the students and their parents who suffer as a result.

“Like the 3,800 students in the Imagine schools,” Franzen said, “your child could end up in a school where a charter’s promises aren’t realized.”

And, he added, the schools may not be able to find the right formula to make every student stick around.

“I’ve had educators say to me that kids don’t drop out in the 10th grade,” he said. “They drop out in the 2nd grade and hang out until the 10th grade.”

Franzen showed a video of parents in Compton, Calif., who had signed a parent trigger petition, marching to take the signatures to the powers who be as students tagged along wearing T-shirts that read: “The revolution is about me.”

What the academy hopes to teach parents, Franzen told the group, is how to figure out which levers need to be pulled to make the changes that are needed. The first step, he said, was happening right there in that room, with parents who were willing to spend part of their evening to learn what the next steps are.

“You can’t legislate behavior,” he said. “You can’t enact policies that make parents get involved.

“It is possible to change policy. What we hope to do here is get people started down that path.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.