Parent Academy

Detroit parents can take classes in clipping coupons and writing resumes. Will they sign up?

PHOTO: Getty Images
Detroit parents say they have new careers, stronger bonds with their children and are more involved in schools because of Parent Academy

Detroit’s main school district launched a major new initiative this spring, offering scores of new classes that aren’t for students, but for their parents.

Held at schools and libraries across the city, parents can sign up for classes to learn to become event-planners or to launch their own home-based business. There are classes to help children with homework, to learn to style children’s hair, and to cope with grief and loss. There’s even a course on how to save extra cash by clipping coupons.

All classes are free and open to parents, caregivers and community members, but the Parent Academy program seems to be off to a slow start — a very slow start.  

A Chalkbeat reporter stopped by three classes last week, selected at random, and found no students attending any of them.

That doesn’t mean all of the classes are empty. Sharlonda Buckman, who heads the district’s office of Family and Community Engagement, said that about 350 parents have either taken a class since they began in April, or signed up for one in May or June.

Programs like the Parent Academy are common across the country as districts increasingly recognize the importance of getting parents to be active in schools.

But the low turnout so far illustrates the challenges facing Detroit school leaders as they try to turn around a struggling school system by introducing new programs.

Research shows that students who get more support at home are more likely to succeed academically. And, if parents feel more connected with their child’s school, they’ll be more likely to volunteer and to recommend the school to friends and neighbors. That’s important in a city where parents can choose from dozens of district, charter and suburban school options for their children.

The main Detroit district has attempted to lure parents with things like resume-writing classes in the past. The district, under the control of an emergency manager, launched a Parent University in 2014.

But the Parent Academy, which has a stated goal of helping parents “support students academically, socially, and emotionally,” is a much more robust effort, offering more than 200 classes in more than 50 subjects between April and June, with more classes planned for the summer and for next year.

“We’re trying to build relationships with parents,” said Yolanda Eddins, a program director in the district’s Family and Community Engagement Office who teaches some of the classes. “We’re trying to get them to re-engage with the schools.”

The district is paying for the program with the help of a $3 million, three-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder). The money funds a number of parent-focused initiatives including a school home visit program that helps connect educators with their students, and a kindergarten bootcamp, which will run this summer to help prepare young children to start school.

Eddins said she averages about 10 parents per class.

Another Parent Academy instructor, Destinee Ray-Williams, a parent engagement officer for the district, said of the handful of classes she’s attended, the largest class has drawn about eight parents.

But Buckman said she expects parent interest to grow as more parents become aware of it. Parents can still sign up for spring classes, or they can show up unregistered.

“There has been almost 100 courses offered” so far,  she said. “Some of them just didn’t work, and we had to cancel, the schools couldn’t do it, etc. We have to do more marketing and recruitment.”

The classes were created based on 4,000 responses to surveys that were given to parents last fall.

“We put classes out there based on what parents wanted,” Buckman said.

Buckman said she and her staff will gauge parent interest before adding more classes for the summer, and they will keep tabs on times and locations that are most popular to help increase participation.

“We have the volume and variety,” Buckman said. “We need to marry that with a more robust marketing campaign. We are really intentionally building the parent body across the district.”

A resume building workshop and classes that help parents as their children transition from one grade to the next have been popular, Eddins said.

“Parents have been very interested in the event planning certification classes,” Eddins said. “One parent started tearing up, she was so excited.”

Here’s the course catalog:

Timely Decision

Detroit school board approves 2018-19 academic calendar after union agrees to changes

PHOTO: Hero Images
Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers agreed to calendar changes to do what's best for students.

The Detroit school board approved this year’s academic calendar Tuesday night, hours after Detroit’s main district and its largest teachers union settled a contract disagreement.

The calendar approval, which comes just three weeks before the first day of school, includes some changes to the original calendar spelled out in the teachers’ contract.  The new calendar was approved last week by a school board subcommittee without comment from the the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and it was on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full school board.

After discussion with the district, the union signed an agreement on the changes, known as a memorandum of understanding.

The calendar eliminates one-hour-early releases on Wednesdays and moves the teacher training that occurred during that time mostly to the beginning of the school year. It also will move spring break to April 1-5, 2019 — a few weeks earlier than the April 19-26 break specified in the contract.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the situation was not ideal, and he realizes that some teachers may already have made plans for the week of April 19-26.

“Hopefully, our teachers realize they should be there,” he said. But if vacation plans were already made and can be changed, “that’s good.”

“We will be prepared as much as possible to have substitutes and even district staff, if it’s necessary,” he said.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers aren’t pleased about the agreement.

“No, we were not happy with the change,” Bailey said.

Addressing a question from board member LaMar Lemmons, Bailey said the calendar changes “did constitute an unfair labor practice” because, among other reasons, teachers lost preparation days with the new calendar.

“We are not happy, but we are here for students,” Bailey said. “We understand this is what’s right for students. We put students first, and we are going to work it out.”

The earlier spring break is designed to avoid the testing window for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam commonly known as the PSAT.

Other changes to the calendar include eliminating scheduled parent-teacher conferences on October 31 because of the Halloween celebration.

calendar quandary

Detroit district and union hammer out last-second agreement on school calendar before vote at tonight’s board meeting

A screenshot of the proposed academic calendar that has caused concern among union officials.

Detroit’s main school district and its largest teachers union settled a contract disagreement Tuesday afternoon after tensions arose over the seemingly routine approval of this year’s academic calendar.

The proposed calendar includes some changes to the one spelled out in the teachers’ contract. It was approved last week by a school board subcommittee without comment from the union, and the same calendar was on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full school board.

With just three weeks until the first day of school, parents and teachers are relying on the calendar to make travel plans and childcare arrangements.

No details were available about the agreement.

Ken Coleman, a spokesman for the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the agreement was resolved before the meeting started, but couldn’t provide further details. District spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said she expected the calendar to go to a vote without opposition from the union.

Coleman said earlier on Tuesday that a vote to approve the calendar could violate the teachers’ contract.

Union leaders were surprised last week when Chalkbeat reported that the board was considering a calendar that was different from the one approved in their contract.

The proposed calendar would eliminate one-hour-early releases on Wednesday and move the teacher training that occurred during that time mostly to the beginning of the school year. It also would move spring break to April 1-5, 2019 — a few weeks earlier than the April 19-26 break specified in the contract.

The earlier spring break is designed to avoid the testing window for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam commonly known as the PSAT, according to school board documents.

Union officials have said that they had no major objections to the contents of the calendar, only to the way in which it was approved.

Correction: Aug. 14, 2018 This story has been corrected to show that the union and district have reached an agreement about the academic calendar.  A previous version of the story, under the headline “An 11th-hour disagreement over an academic calendar could be settled at tonight’s school board meeting,” referenced a pending agreement when an agreement had in fact been reached.