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. 

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

Story time

This Memphis teacher’s favorite student didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She taught him a powerful lesson.

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner teaches at East High School in Memphis.

When one of Daniel Warner’s favorite students refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, he could feel the tension in himself rising.

It was August 2017, the first week of classes, and Warner said he knew how important setting a tone was during the first few days of school.

“Didn’t my teacher prep program teach me that I have to set high expectations in that first week or the year is lost?” asked Warner, a U.S. history teacher at East High School in Memphis. “If I don’t set those, we’re done for.”

But before Warner reacted, he said he took a few moments to reflect on what could be going through her head.

Chalkbeat TN Storytelling Event
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner tells his story to a crowded room.

It was the Monday after a violent white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stories of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick were again dominating the news, as he remained ostracized for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Instead of punishing her, Warner said, he refocused on what she might be thinking through as a black American high schooler.

“The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers,” Warner said.

Warner was one of seven educators and students who participated in a February story storytelling night hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The stories told centered around school discipline practices, a topic Chalkbeat recently dove into in this special report.

Video Credit: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange. The Social Exchange is a pay-as-you can PR & content creation firm for nonprofits and responsible, women/minority owned businesses.

Here’s an edited transcript of Warner’s story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

It’s a week into school in early August. And kids are just trickling into my senior homeroom mostly asleep, sitting quietly in their desk as 18-year-olds do at 7:15 in the morning…And then morning announcements come on. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

So I stand up, and I say, “Alright y’all, go ahead and stand up with me.” I see these seniors throwing their bodies out of their seats, trying to stand up while they are still asleep. And almost everyone stands up but one girl doesn’t…  

So, my eyes meet this girls eyes as she stays in her seat during the pledge. And I can feel the tension in me of my authority being challenged in the room. And I wonder if everyone else is looking at me, my other students. So I give her a teacher look meant to communicate, “Are you going to stand up?” And she looks at me from across the room and shakes her head and mouths, “I can’t.”

So this student was one of my best students the year before in honors U.S. History. She engaged deeply with the material and personally. She asked questions of herself, of her country, of democracy, what this whole thing is about. She processed the double consciousness she feels of being both black and American. And she did so while being kind, thoughtful hardworking. The student you think of that makes you want to cry, you love that kid so much. I wonder what’s going on, what is she thinking about…

This is a Monday and the weekend before had been the white supremacists march in Charlottesville… When she told me, that she couldn’t stand, I went and sat in the desk next to her…I asked, “What’s keeping you from standing up?”

She started by saying, “I hate,” and she stopped herself. She took a breath, calmed herself down and said, “I just can’t.” And so we just sat there for a second. I could see as I got closer to her that she was flooded with emotion and feeling something deeply. And so we let the announcements end and I tell her, “When I say the pledge I say it more as a hope and a prayer…that there would be liberty and justice for all.” She said, “Yeah, I was thinking about that,” like a good U.S. History student, but she said “things don’t’ seem to be headed that way right now…

The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers. She showed me that I was a little too focused on how I was being perceived by other students in the classroom. And that I wasn’t focused enough on her and what she might be processing. As teachers, we have all of this opportunity to escalate conflict, I’ve done it plenty of times. But we also have an opportunity to be gracious to students who are working out who they are in public…

This girl wasn’t being disengaged by saying no to me, she was being especially engaged with who she is… When we talk about restorative justice, the first step we have to take is for us as educators and adults, and it’s doing your own emotional work. And we have to ask ourselves questions about our identities. You can only lead someone somewhere if you’ve gone there yourself…

What is it about us when it sets us off when a kid says no to us? Why are we that insecure? … When we pay attention to ourselves, our emotional status, the hurt we’ve felt, the pain we’ve lived through, that is when we can begin paying attention to how formative schools are. They are spaces where folks are working out their identities in public, and that’s when you feel the most self conscious and vulnerable and in need of grace offered by someone else.

So, I hope as we talk about this, we think of ways where we can make school a space for people to be figuring out who they are and not just punished into compliance. In high poverty schools, you talk about compliance like it’s the ultimate behavior. I hope we can make schools where students can learn what it is to seek justice, even when and especially when, things just don’t seem to be headed that way right now.