Learning to lead

It’s not high school civics, but parents (and teens) learn the ropes of public policy

Nate Donovan’s idea was simple: Teach school bus drivers and aides basic Spanish phrases to help them better communicate with Spanish-speaking students and families.

He called the project, “School Bus Drivers Habla Espanol.”

The Fort Collins resident, a school bus driver himself, presented the idea to three-dozen adults and teenagers gathered in a Loveland 4H meeting room one Thursday night last month. They were his classmates in a 20-week course called the Family Leadership Training Institute, or FLTI.

One by one, all of them would present their own community project proposals at a podium in front of the room. But that night Donovan had a special addendum to his three-minute speech. He announced that just a few days before he’d filed the preliminary paperwork needed to run for school board next fall.

“This is my calling and it starts right here, right now,” he said, to enthusiastic applause and cheers from his fellow students.

It may not have been the conventional backdrop for such an announcement, but it seemed fitting for a class that helps participants learn how to navigate the world of public policy.

While the class is non-partisan and focuses on no single policy issue, the point is to get parents and other community members engaged in bigger discussions about the issues that affect their lives.

In other words, “Teaching families how to go from the kitchen table to the policy table,” said Eileen Forlenza, a parent and community engagement specialist at the state health department. The department coordinates the program.

Why train parents as leaders?

Parent leadership programs are partly borne out of research showing that engaged parents and strong family partnerships make a difference for kids. In an education context, they help children do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more. There are similarly positive results for family health outcomes.

In Colorado, FLTI is one component of the state’s broader efforts to foster family engagement. A two-year-old program, housed in the Colorado Department of Education, offers trainings to educators and parents about school and district accountability committees, both of which must include parent members. Since 2009, there has also been the State Advisory Council for Parent Involvement in Education, which provides feedback on topics ranging from the READ Act to the state’s Turnaround Network.

Colorado FLTI locations
  • Adams County
  • Arapahoe/Douglas Counties
  • Denver/Aurora
  • Denver/Five Points
  • Dolores/Montezuma Counties
  • Eagle County
  • Lake County
  • Larimer County
  • Mesa County
  • Prowers County

Darcy Hutchins, family partnership director at the education department, said FLTI’s work dovetails nicely with the efforts she leads.

“It’s really challenging for any parent regardless of their circumstances to step into a leadership role,” said Hutchins. “I think the training that FLTI does can really help to build parents’ capacity.”

The training institute, like similar programs in a dozen other states, is modeled on a Connecticut initiative founded in 1992 after leaders there discovered that parents had good ideas for improving child outcomes but felt no one would listen to them.

That discouraging news came out of a series of statewide focus groups aimed at improving school readiness, said Patti Keckeisen, national program implementer for the Connecticut-based National Parent Leadership Institute.

“It was a constant refrain…They had the best ideas, but they didn’t feel powerful,” she said.

Leaders there subsequently developed and piloted a 10-week civic leadership course for parents, later expanding it to 20 weeks. Forlenza discovered Connecticut’s curriculum in 2006 while searching for a proven family leadership program to implement in Colorado.

Colorado beginnings

The first Colorado FLTI classes launched in Cortez, Westminster, and Littleton in 2009. Since then, it has grown to 10 sites, with Adams County launching the first monolingual Spanish FLTI course in 2012.

For the first time this spring, both the Loveland site and the Denver-Five Points site, which are run by the Colorado State University Extension, launched companion FLTI classes for youth. Like the adult course, the youth version focuses on leadership development and requires participants to plan a community project, but the curriculum is a bit different and aside from a few joint sessions, the youth meet separately.

Eighth-grader Edgardo Meza-Alba signed up for the youth class in Loveland at the suggestion of his mom Tonky Mathew, an adult participant.

During a break in the three-hour class last month, he said he enjoyed the weekly sessions, despite having to miss Thursday soccer practice to attend.

“You can make friends here,” he said. “You look at things differently…[You learn] how to be a better leader, how to be a more open person.”

Piecing together the leadership puzzle

While civic leadership can seem a bit abstract, FLTI approaches the subject in a very hands-on way. With the help of trained facilitators, participants share their own histories, work on small group projects, practice skills through role play, work on public speaking and, at the end of the course go on a field trip to the state Capitol.

During a March session adult participants made collages showing how society perceives families and family leaders. They clipped out dozens of magazine pictures of queens, smiling moms, quirky TV families, a pan of lasagna and even Oprah posing with a tiger.

The ensuing discussion raised pointed questions about whether fathers advocate enough for family issues, whether families are mostly seen as consumers rather than leaders, and whether power requires wealth.

One participant observed that often when there are problems in schools, “It’s not taken care of till one of the kids with money, it happens to them.”

Next door in the youth classroom, groups of teens tried — and sometimes struggled — to practice reflective listening as they role-played adolescent problems like sibling rivalry, scolding adults and fair-weather friends.

“This seemingly simple task is actually really hard,” admitted one girl.

Challenges and victories

While FLTI is well established in Colorado compared to many other states — where often one city or region offers the program — it’s not without its challenges.

Raising money is one of the biggest. Currently, funding for the classes — about $20,000-$35,000 per site — comes from the Colorado Health Foundation, portions of two federal grants, and dollars raised by the local host agencies.

But the number of communities that want to offer the course outstrips the supply of willing funders. In part, it’s because the concept of family leadership is often misunderstood, conjuring up adversarial images of activism or prompting questions about the program’s agenda, said Forlenza.

Is it education reform, health care reform, something else?

None of the above, said Forlenza.

“It’s getting the voice of everyday families back in the civic process,” she said.

What that means is perhaps best explained by the kinds of community projects participants plan during the course. In the Loveland class, besides Donovan’s bus driver project, a middle school football coach from Fort Collins proposed a mentoring program for his athletes called “Warriors of Excellence.”

Kiara, a teenage participant, citing statistics about teen suicide, self harm and sexual abuse, proposed a support group for teens or tweens “to just be heard.”

A number of grassroots projects have also came from the program’s 425 alumni across the state, Forlenza said. One participant convinced county commissioners to build a bridge over a ditch that separated her small neighborhood from a local park.

Another, whose young son was chronically ill, helped establish a program for siblings at Children’s Hospital. That mom went on to serve on the hospital’s family advisory council and is now serves on a national health care council.

There are also marked behavior shifts among participants who take the course. A national evaluation of the model revealed large increases in the percent of participants who attended meetings of elected officials, spoke at such meetings or contacted lawmakers after completing the course.

For many participants, the classes go beyond just teaching individual skills and confidence. They create a sense of community. When Donovan made his official school board race announcement at a restaurant a few weeks after he revealed his plans at FLTI, he enthusiastically reported that several classmates attended, along with their children.

“We’re so fortunate these efforts are being made and we’re developing a bench of people who are active in their community,” said Donovan. “The value of what we’re learning in these 20 weeks is immeasurable.”

Chalkbeat Colorado is a grantee of the Colorado Health Foundation. 

after parkland

‘We’re not kidding about this,’ says one teen leader of Memphis march on gun violence

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students in Indianapolis participate in the National School Walkout on March 14. This Saturday, students in the Memphis area will join a related March for Our Lives.

Memphis students were on spring break when this month’s national school walkout against gun violence happened, but 13-year-old Simran Bains is not going to miss her chance to publicly speak her mind.

PHOTO: Simran Bains
Eighth-grader Simran Bains is a student leader at Schilling Farms Middle School in Collierville.

An eighth-grader at Schilling Farms Middle School in Collierville, which is on the outskirts of Memphis, Simran is one of more than a dozen teenagers planning this Saturday’s March for Our Lives in Memphis.

She believes the student drive to protest gun violence following last month’s shooting of 17 people in Parkland, Florida, will not end anytime soon. Saturday’s march is part of a national movement organized by Parkland students to keep the conversation going about gun violence.

“I think this moment is different,” Simran said. “For every school shooting I can remember, it’s the same cycle. People are sad and shocked, but nothing ever changes.”

Students and other supporters will walk to the National Civil Rights Museum from Clayborn Temple, the historic assembling area for civil rights marches of the 1960s.

We spoke with Simran about what this march means to her and what she hopes Memphis learns from it. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)

Why are you participating in Saturday’s march?

For me, I’ve always been a little louder than my peers. I’ve always been one to go on a tangent or two. When I heard about the march from a friend, it really stood out to me because it’s being organized by people my age. I have never seen people this young doing stuff like this. It was inspiring. There’s this perception in society that there’s a gun problem in America and that’s how the world will always be. But here, I’m seeing young people, who are the future of America, changing the world, and I wanted to be a part of that.

What message do you hope to send?

I hope people hear that even though we’re young, we’re not kidding about this, and we won’t back down. I want people in Shelby County to care more about this issue and listen to us. I hope people recognize that even if they have a right to protection, no one should have to fear for their life while receiving a public education. This is a serious issue. If we don’t do something, it only gets worse from here.

But I also hope we can broaden the conversation beyond school shootings. We have one of the highest gun homicide rates in the world, one of the highest suicide-by-gun rates in the world. We’re talking about people killing themselves, not just people killing people. Suicide and homicide aren’t often brought into this conversation. I hope that changes in Memphis.

I also want the march to remind us that we can’t become desensitized to gun violence. Whenever we read that someone was shot, we don’t always think how somebody just lost one of their own. That person will have to go home to empty bedrooms.

What specifically would you like to see happen in Tennessee?

I’m personally not one to advocate for the total removal of guns. I think that’s sometimes an assumption of people who are against protests like March for Our Lives. They assume we want to take all guns away. That’s not necessarily true. But I want a written exam to purchase a gun, like in Japan. I also want a longer wait time when you purchase a gun. I don’t think you should be able to walk into a gun shop and walk out the same day with a weapon. School shootings, or gun violence in general, can often be a spur-of-the-moment decision. What if the person had to wait a few days, weeks or months before they actually got that gun? Would they still feel the same way they did when they first went to buy the gun?

Have you or your family or your friends ever been personally touched by gun violence?

My family has never been a gun family. My parents are immigrants from India, and it’s just never been a thing for us. Going to school where I do, there’s a lot of political viewpoints. Some people are really pro owning guns, some are really against. And it’s an interesting place to talk about this. But also, I’ve gotten to know people from different backgrounds. I know people in Memphis and areas surrounding it who have lost someone to guns. I’ve known people who have lost loved ones to guns in homicides or gang violence.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on Change.org calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”