Getting schooled

(Rebecca Wolenski/YH Staff)

You don’t know what tired is until you’ve been a parent!” Mayor DeStefano shouted to a crowd of over 200 New Haven parents and caretakers seated in Gateway Community College’s packed cafeteria on the morning of Sat., Nov. 3. His remarks elicited cheers and nods of agreement from the audience, some of whom chattered away in English, Spanish, and countless other languages, while others sat alone, nervously glancing at the hectic schedule they’d been given for the day.

The occasion was Parent University. First conceptualized and run in cities like Boston and Philadelphia, the event provided an opportunity for parents, friends, and family of New Haven public school students to participate in free workshops, covering topics that ranged from eating healthily on a budget to disciplining children in a safe and effective way to securing financial aid for college tuition. “The goal of Parent University is to engage parents as learners, teachers, leaders, and advocates,” Patricia Melton, executive director of the New Haven Promise scholarship program, said. The event was a collaboration between the city’s public schools, New Haven Promise, and the United Way of Greater New Haven, an organization that brings together citizens and civic leaders to push for reforms in areas of education, health, and income inequality. The event differed from those it was modeled on in one key way: New Haven’s Parent University offered workshops that would improve not only parenting skills, but also the lives of the parents themselves.

Parent University is something of a culmination of New Haven’s School Change Initiative (SCI), which Abbe Smith, director of communications for New Haven public schools, described as a “nationally recognized school reform process.” The jam-packed Gateway lobby was a testament to the larger campaign of the New Haven Board of Education to reach out to and connect with the parents of New Haven students. Indeed, though the SCI involves efforts to change many components of the existing education system, from reforms in teaching methods to administrative changes, the initiative also focuses on the often over-looked area of “wraparound services.” These are services that can have significant effects on students’ ability to learn but are often unacknowledged and difficult to monitor. Parent University, in its aims to make improvements in family and home life, is part of this broader initiative to focus on wraparound services.

The 35-plus workshops were an opportunity for parents to share and receive tips on how to parent, while also offering advice for success in their own lives. One workshop, titled “Help, I need a job! Successful job search strategies,” focused on skills for job interviews. By the end of the one and a half hours, the approximately 10 attendees, who had initially been quiet and shy, were confidently volunteering to discuss their resumes with the class. One mother proudly talked about her computer skills, telling the group how many words per minute she could type. Another parent revealed to us that she was a certified and experienced paralegal.

The primary emphasis of the day, however, was to encourage parents to engage with their children’s schooling, and help families become active partners in their children’s education. “Probably the most important thing in a kid’s school success is how involved parents are in what they’re doing,” Laoise King, vice president of Education Initiatives for United Way, told The New Haven Independent. One workshop that embodied this message was “Success in Science: A Hands-on Workshop,” led by Richard Therrien, the science program supervisor for New Haven public schools. Despite having a small group of only five participants, Mr. Therrien did his best to clarify and help the attendees learn how to navigate the New Haven science curriculum. The “hands-on” portion of the experiment was admittedly disappointing—all he had us do was measure reaction time by catching a ruler.

Still, parent Marisol Albarran felt that the workshop was important to attend. As the mother of a 10-year-old son, she emphasized to me her desire to get more involved in her child’s education. Having already spent some time volunteering in schools, Albarran felt that the workshop was the perfect way to get an idea of what her son was learning. She had only one complaint: “The workshops are too long!” If the timeslots were shorter, she explained, more could fit into the day, allowing for participants to attend more of these workshops. “I’d go to them all!” she said. Albarran was one of the many parents I encountered who was willing and eager to complete the ultimate role reversal, transforming from authority figure to pupil.

At lunch, Karen Mapp, lecturer on education and director of the Education Policy and Management Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education gave the keynote address. The New Haven native discussed the importance of family engagement in a child’s education. Drawing upon her research and administrative experience in Boston, Mapp highlighted an important issue: while parents sometimes don’t know why they should become engaged in their children’s lives, more often the confusion lies in how to do so. “We want our parents to say: ‘You can!’” she said her own students had told her. Mapp gave examples of simple methods of engagement in education, such as reading to children at a young age. She concluded that Parent University was about “partnership” between students, parents, schools, and the community.

Melton explained that Parent University was a partnership allowing like-minded individuals and organizations to meet, creating, yet again, a community of positive parental and familial influences. “[Parent University] gave [New Haven Promise] the opportunity to work with other nonprofits who have similar goals in serving the New Haven community,” she said, listing groups like School Haven and the New Haven Moms Partnership, both of which were present at Parent University, as nonprofits that Promise hoped to work with again in the future.

That same sense of collaboration was seen among the parents themselves. Parent University was an opportunity to give and receive help from other parents. At one workshop I attended, for instance, when two non-English speakers walked in late, another Spanish-speaking mom invited them to sit next to her and became an impromptu translator. Later, during the financial aid session, one parent shared a treasured scholarship website that she used for her own child with the others. By doing so, she felt she was helping to establish a “college-going culture.”

As two hundred parents, caretakers, non-profit organizers, and schoolteachers gathered together, they worked to build a pro-parent, family-oriented community. In particular, they worked to promote a vision of community with an emphasis on college. The seven-hour day at Gateway was about more than passing down useful tips on writing a strong resume, or demonstrating the science curriculum at the Elm City’s public schools. It was about shifting the expectations for the future of New Haven’s students. My final workshop of the day was by far the most crowded, with over 20 parents huddled together, eager to learn about college admissions and financial aid. Financial aid representatives from Quinnipiac University and Gateway Community College led the discussion on financing expensive college educations. Everyone in the room paid close attention, scribbling furiously and frequently raising their hands to ask questions. “If you talk to [students] early and often about college, they’ve already got that goal in mind,” Betsy Yagia, New Haven Promise’s communications and research coordinator, told her audience at a different college planning workshop. “We want students to say, ‘Where will I go to college?’ not ‘Will I go to college?’”

For New Haven students, this shift in thinking is crucial. A New Haven Independent article reported earlier this year that the high school dropout rate for the city’s class of 2011 was 25.1 percent, which was actually an improvement from previous years. Another Independent piece reported that only 59% of New Haven’s class of 2012 graduates enrolled in college last year.

Elisha Brown was excited by the pro-college message of the day. Brown, who has three children, two in high school and one already in college, attended two college-focused workshops. Despite already working at the Family Resource Center at the Wexler-Grant School, she said she had learned of a lot of new information and resources that she didn’t know of before. She was eager to share them at Wexler-Grant in an effort to continue communal exchanges of information, and to help her own kids at home as they prepare for their futures.

As parents and advocates packed up their belongings and headed home, Melton hoped that people’s interest would remain even after they left Gateway that day, so that participants would stay in touch and further strengthen their sense of community. When asked about possible improvements that could be made to the event, Smith had difficulty coming up with a clear answer. Instead, she looked up and pointed to the hundreds of parents that had eagerly turned out for the school day, and said the event had gone “better than we could’ve imagined!” She sounded pleasantly surprised.

But the job isn’t finished just yet—at least, that’s what King from United Way assured me. Parent University was just one program to help parents navigate the “bureaucracy of the really big school system.” Many additional initiatives, including more sessions of Parent University and smaller local workshops, are on the way.

“New Haven is leaps and bounds ahead of other urban school districts, and Mayor Destefano and the superintendent deserve a lot of credit,” King said. And, with their continued support, the road ahead has never looked so good in King’s eyes. Parent University underscored more than just the importance of supplying the financial resources to send New Haven’s future generations to college.

The event was part of a larger effort to change people’s attitudes towards college and to make parents informed participants in their children’s educations. Though the effects of Parent University remain to be seen, the event was a valuable step in helping to transform New Haven into a more supportive and family-oriented city.

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