Parent Engagement: In the Schoolhouse and Beyond

Guest blog post by Maritza Solano, Director of Education, CASA

Carla* (*names have been changed for confidentially) was nervous about being a panelist during the National PTA Legislative Conference in Washington, DC in early March. Carla, along with two other mothers from Prince George’s County in Maryland, were invited by UnidosUS’s (formerly NCLR) education team to the Conference to share her perspective on how to better engage underserved communities—specifically immigrant parents like herself.

Carla’s perspective was critical, as the audience present at the Conference had the potential to impact national policy conversations being debated on Capitol Hill. She was bombarded with questions from participants intrigued by how an undocumented mother of four with limited English skills had become such a fearless leader of her children’s school and community, despite the political rhetoric that was targeting families like her own. Carla’s response was straightforward: “I am no longer afraid and know that my voice is powerful and needed”.

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Since 2014, 100 parents living in Langley Park, Maryland—a community with more than 17,000 residents—have become empowered advocates through CASA’s “Learning Together: (Aprendiendo Juntos) program Seventy percent of the residents are foreign-born, too. Learning Together is a bilingual initiative, funded by an Investing in Innovation grant, designed to build parents’ skills, confidence, and social capital to help navigate the U.S. education system. The program is a partnership between CASA, Prince George’s County Public Schools, the Urban Institute, University of Maryland, and the U.S. Department of Education. Central to the Learning Together program is a two-generation approach focused on improving quality of life for parents and positively impacting academic outcomes for children.

Learning Together uses six key components:

  • Community Promoters
  • Open, community-wide events
  • Education Committee for Parents
  • Youth programming
  • Parents-as-Teachers classes
  • Teacher Parent Connections Engagement Institute

Our Parents-as-Teachers classes serve as the first touch point to CASA for some parents.  The classes are a foundation to understanding how to navigate the school system, and enhance their communication and advocacy skills. The classes use culturally competent and authentic examples to emphasize parents’ rights and responsibilities in the school system while acknowledging that parents have rights that extend into their larger community. One of the most popular classes includes an activity on the school budgetary process. Many parents realize that significant decisions are being made on their children’s behalf, yet their voices are not included in the decision-making process. This class demystifies the budgetary process by giving them an overview of how and when a budget is created and asks them to create their own budget as a collective. Parents are given fake money and asked to deposit into categories they have prioritized. Finally, a comparison exercise reveals their priorities versus the priorities of the school district. This activity is eye-opening for some parents and motivates them to become informed and engaged in the budgetary process. Our efforts have increased the number of parents from Langley Park that attend meetings of the Board of Education and Prince George’s County Council. Additionally, more than 30 parents and students have testified in front of the Board of Education and County Council during the last two years.

CASA’s belief in our members as the core of our work means that our only role is to find the resources and support they need to facilitate their empowerment. We do not have formal engagement specialists or outreach caseworkers. All our staff is prepared to serve our families because we know that change may happen in schools, but that should also impact larger communities.

For example, Carla organized parents to advocate for the city of Hyattsville, Maryland to be recognized as a sanctuary city. As Carla and the other mothers on the Conference panel noted that their experiences are valuable and can help advocates learn more about how to engage their own parents in creating the change that is needed at their children’s schools, and even in their communities. Attendees left the Conference feeling powerful and motivated to help other parents in other communities launch strong and sustainable PTAs. For Carla, it confirmed her belief that advocating for the well-being of her children goes beyond the school hallways, into her community, and other communities across the country.

There are a couple of key questions for any advocate looking to get involved in empowering parents to engage in their child’s school system. For example, what kind of programs are available in the area that expand and enhance parents’ advocacy skills at school and beyond? How is your school district incorporating parents’ voices in policies and programs that impact their children? As diverse communities continue to grow across school districts, it is crucial that we answer these questions and build spaces for parent voices to be heard and included in decision-making processes. After all, parents bring their children every day to our schools with the hope that their lives will be transformed. They are one of the biggest assets to ensure that teachers, staff, and administrators are fully equipped to do that.

Maritza Solano is CASA’s Director of Education working on educational and two generation initiatives that impact EL, first generation, immigrant students and families in some of the largest school districts in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Her work focuses on two generation community and school engagement programming and both local and statewide advocacy efforts.   

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