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.