Parent Engagement

After initial stumbles, Detroit schools’ Parent Academy retools with new schedules and workshops

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

The surprisingly low enrollment in Detroit schools’ free career and parenting classes has prompted the district to retool what officials had thought would be a popular perk for parents.

Fueled by part of a $3 million grant, Detroit’s main school district rolled out a series of 200 classes last spring. But some apparently attracted few parents, and some sessions had no takers at all.

Hoping the classes will motivate parents to be more involved in their children’s schools, the district is learning from its lessons and swapping out classes, changing times and dates, and shoring up publicity.

“The time, location, marketing, and promotion are the things that we are trying to systematize,” wrote Sharlonda Buckman, assistant superintendent of community engagement, in a statement to Chalkbeat.

The district reported that almost 1,900 parents attended at least one class or workshop in the spring semester, which ended in June.

Officials said the district could not provide more detailed enrollment figures. Buckman said they are waiting for results of an outside audit. The courses are open to all adults in Detroit.

But clearly, for some of those who did attend classes — which in the spring ranged from one-day workshops on coupon clipping to six-week marketing courses that lead to a career certificate — found clear benefits.

Sharene Nathan, a mother at Ludington Magnet Middle and Honors School, attended communication and phlebotomy classes. She earned a phlebotomy certification in the six-week course, and landed a new position at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute.

Encouraged by her communication workshop, Nathan became involved at her school for the first time, becoming a parent leader. In class, she discovered she could help her 11-year-old daughter, who is on the autism spectrum, feel more secure by chatting on her cell phone’s Facetime app, and trying techniques to tap into her feelings and giving her clear instructions. That led to a stronger bonding and fewer spats at home.

“I never thought in a million years I could do this,” said Nathan, 45. “I was at the point of not even wanting to live because I was struggling with cancer, and in an abusive marriage. Now I have a medical career, and the training was free.”

Sharene Nathan

As the district rebuilds, officials are determined to increase parent involvement to improve student attendance, discipline issues and test scores. The academy is funded by a three-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder).

Informed by enrollment numbers, the district is adding more sessions of the popular phlebotomy course and offering a new nursing assistant course.

Buckman said the program is designed to help parents explore career opportunities, and to learn to effectively advocate for and discipline their children and to help them to be more successful in school.

“This is our investment in families as many of them have invested in us,” Buckman said.

But some parents didn’t realize the courses were free, so the district is making sure that’s clear in its marketing materials and catalogues. And most people didn’t use the link to register and just showed up, Buckman said, so that left the district without a clear way to predict enrollment.

But once parents took one class, they wanted lots more, Buckman said.

After brainstorming with parents and surveying about 400 of them, the district added more after-school and Saturday slots and plans to add workshops on topics such as mental health, sex trafficking and how to teach children about appropriate touching. It beefed up career training.

The summer semester, which began last month and still is open for registration, reflects some of those changes, and more adjustments will be made for fall classes beginning in late September, Buckman said.

The fall catalogue will be released at the beginning of the school year.

The district is hearing from parents how classes are paying off.

Trenikia Bloodsaw, parent of four children in district schools, had been planning baby and bridal showers for clients, but the certification she received from an event-planning and branding workshop gave her the courage to plan a celebration for the district’s parent leaders at a local hotel.

“It boosted my self-esteem and taught me how to sit at the table with corporate people and not be intimidated by them,” she said. “Sometimes, you hear big names and think that’s out of your reach. I don’t think like that anymore.”  

Parent Teodora Cruz said she learned valuable parenting skills. She has been worried about her son, soon to be a freshman, and his crowd of friends.

Parenting techniques she learned in the popular discipline and punishment class helped her turn around the 14-year-old. Instead of telling him to do something, she now gives him choices such as washing the dishes or doing the laundry. While not necessarily attractive, she said, those choices are empowering him.

“It opened up a new relationship for us, and now he’s cooperating more,” she said.

Teodora Cruz

Carmen Cook, a district program facilitator, said that she found parents needed a primer on subjects such as history, science and math to better assist their children with homework, so she tried to touch on them in the career readiness classes she taught.

“We don’t want to just throw them to the wolves,” she said. “We give them a little introduction to the topics so they can really help their children.”

Research shows that students who get more support at home are more likely to succeed academically. Parents who feel more connected with their child’s school will be more likely to volunteer and 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.

But it’s not the first time the main district has attempted to lure parents with classes on topics such as résumé writing. Under emergency management control, the district launched a Parent University in 2014.

However, this time, Buckman said the courses are drawing more parents and providing useful information and training.

The Kellogg grant also funds other parent-focused initiatives, including a home visit program that helps connect teachers with their students and families, and kindergarten boot camp, which is running this summer to help prepare 5-year-olds for school by learning to write their names, count to at least 20 and other school-readiness skills.

Partners in the Parent Academy, including the Detroit Parent Network, 482Forward, the Detroit Public Library and many other organizations, are helping by teaching some of its classes and offering programs.

“We are leveraging hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not a million dollars more,” Buckman said.


Getting ready for school

Kindergarten ‘boot camp’ aims to ready young Detroit children — and their parents — for school

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
In this counting exercise, twin brothers, Rafael and Nicholas Gonzalez, prepare to stack pretend scoops of ice cream on their cones.

In a back room of a church on the city’s near east side,  Abraham and Magaly Gonzalez attended a summer camp with their 5-year-old twins. Six other children from the church’s child care center were seated around a rectangular table lit by fluorescent overhead lights, working on exercises to teach them colors, numbers, and shapes.

“They have to learn more,” Magaly Gonzalez said, explaining that the couple has been working with the boys, Rafael and Nicholas, at home using books and videos, “and we have to learn more to help them.”

This was their second session in the Detroit main district’s newly launched Kindergarten Boot Camp, a four-week summer program led by district staff that focuses on the basics children need to start school. The Gonzalezes sent their sons to preschool when they were 4 years old. But the couple was so excited about what their boys learned in an earlier camp that they came to the People’s Missionary Baptist Church, a community site, to help them learn more: how to count to 20, spell and write their names, and recognize letters and shapes.

Although school readiness is not a new notion for educators, in the past couple of years, the summer programs for children who are about to start kindergarten have become a national trend, said Robin Jacob, a University of Michigan research associate professor who focuses on K-12 educational intervention.

“They are a fairly new idea, and they are important,” said Jacob, who researched more than a dozen similar programs that recently have sprung up from Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif., many targeting children who had no prior preschool education.

A full year of preschool is the best way to get children ready for kindergarten, she said, “but we know there are kids who fall through the cracks and it’s important to catch those children, and preschool doesn’t always include parents so they learn how to help their children at home.”

A growing number of districts and schools have added the programs, recognizing that they last only a few weeks, are relatively inexpensive, and keep students engaged during the summer months, she said.

These early lessons are important for children and their parents, said Sharlonda Buckman, the Detroit district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, because officials too often hear from teachers that children don’t know how to sit in their seats, line up, or hold a pencil.

Even when they’ve gone to preschool, she said, some children still have trouble,  because kindergarten requires more discipline and structure than preschool. The children’s parents often don’t know how to prepare their children for kindergarten and lifelong learning.

That’s why the district’s program requires parents like the Gonzalezes to attend the boot camp sessions with their children.

“People automatically assume Kindergarten Boot Camp is about the kids,” Buckman said. “For us, it’s about the parents.”

About 100 parents attended the classes this summer in nine elementary schools and the church to build on the belief that “parents are the child’s best teacher,” Buckman said.

Parents also are involved in programs sponsored by Living Arts, a nonprofit arts organization, that is offering a range of programming in Detroit through Head Start to help preschool children and their parents get ready for the first day of school.

“Our movement, drama and music activities encourage children to learn how to be part of a line to transition to another part of the day such as going outside, the bathroom or a circle,” said Erika Villarreal-Bunce, the Living Arts director of programs. “The arts help children understand this new space they’re in is not like things were at home, and helps children learn to function in those spaces.”

Although not all camps require parent involvement, they offer similar lessons to prepare children for kindergarten.

In suburban cities such as Southfield and Huntington Woods, the Bricks 4 Kidz program uses models made of brightly colored bricks to teach preschool children letter recognition, patterns, colors, counting, and vocabulary. Maria Montoya, a spokeswoman from the Grand Valley State University, the largest charter authorizer in Detroit, said she wasn’t aware of any similar summer kindergarten readiness programs. They also did not receive grant funding for the pre-kindergarten initiative.

The best of them teach basic academics, instruct children in a classroom setting, and engage parents in student learning, Jacob said.

“Educators have thought about school readiness for a long time, but understanding how important that summer transition period can be is something that people have started to think about more carefully recently,” she said. “Summertime is a key time where kids can be learning.”

Regina Bell, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer, said the foundation funded Detroit’s Kindergarten Boot Camp because of the importance of focusing on the earliest years of life to ensure students’ success in K-12 and beyond.

“Part of this is recognizing that most of the the human brain is developed by the age of 5, and when you think about early learning opportunities, those are the foundation for the future,” she said. “It is that foundation that really takes children into the K-12 system.”

Kindergarten Boot Camp, funded by a $3 million Kellogg grant, is only one part of the Detroit district’s efforts to increase parent involvement to improve student attendance, discipline issues, and test scores. The three-year grant also funds the Parent Academy and teacher home visits. (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder).

As for Abraham Gonzalez, the twins’ father, parenting and teaching children doesn’t come naturally. So he says the early learning opportunity for his sons is essential for them — and their parents, although they spent a year in preschool at the Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit.

“We are trying our best to teach these kids,” he said, and it’s even more challenging teaching them when Spanish is their first language.

Now, he said, the boys’ are getting so proficient at English, they understand more than their parents.

“They are understanding what the people tell them,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”

School funding

Poll: Most residents want Michigan to change the way it funds schools

PHOTO: (Photo by Ariel Skelley via Getty Images)
Members of the School Finance Research Collaborative are calling for equitable school funding so all Michigan students get the education they deserve.

Most Michigan residents believe the state’s current method of funding schools is both insufficient and unfair.

Those were the findings of a new statewide poll that was conducted in June by the School Finance Research Collaborative, a prominent group of Michigan educators, policymakers, and business leaders that has called for major changes to the way schools are funded.

The poll of 600 Michigan residents found that 70 percent believe the state’s schools are underfunded, and 63 percent think they are not funded fairly.

“The results of the poll should really be a wake-up call for policymakers on both sides of the aisle, and to anyone seeking elected office,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, a School Research Collaborative member and superintendent of Oakland Schools. “They need to listen to the Michiganders and use the school finance research collaborative study as a road map for a new, fair schools funding system.”

The poll follows a report the collaborative released in January, which recommended sweeping changes to the way schools in Michigan are funded. Instead of sending schools the same amount per student, the report recommended providing schools with additional funds for students who are learning English, living in poverty or facing other challenges.

The group spent nearly two years and about $900,000 producing the report but it did not get much immediate response from Lansing. The education budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder this summer included increases to school funding, but made no changes to the funding formula.

Michael Addonizio, a professor of Education Policy Studies at Wayne State University and a member of the collaborative, said the poll offers another reason why lawmakers should pay attention to the issue.

“It’s time for a new school funding system that meets the unique, individual needs of all students, whether they are enrolled in special education, living in poverty, English language learners, and [whether] students attend school in geographically isolated areas of the state,” he said.

Details about the survey including the specific questions asked are below.