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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Cultivating Parent Leaders: One School District's Story

Parents step to the head of the class as advocates for their district's students.
By Roberta Furger

Louise Dodson went from being an irate parent to becoming a school leader at the ABC Unified School District, in Cerritos, California, because of the district's support and encouragement.

Credit: ABC Unified School District

As a confident Louise Dodson guides a roomful of parents through the steps toward becoming advocates for their children and leaders in their schools, it's hard to believe that just a few years ago she was an angry, frustrated mom struggling to obtain services for her young son.

The transformation from irate parent to school -- and school district -- leader didn't happen overnight. But through the support of more experienced parents and a school district committed to developing partnerships with all its stakeholders, Dodson developed both the skills and the confidence to be able to stand in front of a packed room and talk about her own journey to becoming a parent advocate.

"My son was having problems and it felt like everyone was picking on him," recalls Dodson. In meetings with teachers, everything she and her husband heard about their then-second grader was negative. Dodson knew there had to be a better way to help her son, who'd been diagnosed with a learning disability, but she was at a loss as to what to do next.

That's when she attended a school PTA meeting and was offered assistance from a parent familiar with the special-education program. With this experienced parent to guide her, Dodson soon learned how to be an advocate for her child. She worked closely with school staff to understand the most appropriate services and classroom placement.

Little by little, Dodson grew more comfortable with the system and her role in it. As her confidence grew, she began attending parent-education courses offered both locally and through the Los Angeles County Office of Education, always with the support and encouragement of her local school principal.

Today, Dodson is PTA council president for the ABC Unified School District, a diverse Southern California district encompassing the cities of Artesia, Cerritos, and Hawaiian Gardens as well as portions of Lakewood, Long Beach, and Norwalk. She's a member of her local school-site council and sits on the school board advisory committee.

In addition, she advocates for healthy and safe school buildings and programs for troubled youth. She's a facilitator for the district's parent-education programs and served as a co-chair of the district's fourth annual Parent Leadership Conference -- a day-long event where hundreds of parents come to learn how to become partners in their children's education.

"I've seen really dramatic changes in myself and other parents," says Dodson, laughing at her own metamorphosis. Besides becoming much more self-assured in her ability to support her children's education at home, Dodson says the many parenting classes she has attended have enabled her to better support all ABC students.

"Without those classes, I would be just another angry parent," says Dodson. "I'd still be fighting the system on behalf of my children, but I'd be missing out on the opportunity to help other kids."

Ginny Markell is president of the National PTA.

Credit: National PTA

The ABCs of Parent Involvement

Dodson's story is repeated over and over in the ABC Unified School District, where school and school district leaders consider parent involvement a top priority.

In addition to the annual Parent Leadership Conference, the district sponsors monthly workshops on a wide range of school and parenting issues, from communication skills and anger management to strategies for supporting gifted students and the use of technology to support student achievement. Because of the district's sizable Latino and Asian population, workshops are frequently offered in Spanish, Chinese, and Korean.

Pao-Ling Guo, a former teacher in the district and now the coordinator of ABC's parent-education efforts, knows that a good subject and a well-designed workshop aren't enough to get parents out of the house on weekday evenings after a long day at work. That's why she works closely with many community groups, talking to community leaders, sending out flyers and putting information into the Korean and Chinese church newsletters, and taking every opportunity to promote the parent-education programs with district parents. Guo also writes a weekly education column in the Chinese Daily News, the largest daily newspaper for Chinese Americans and a staple of many of her parents.

"I was a teacher in Taiwan for six years before coming to ABC Unified," explains Guo. "That experience helps me to make comparisons that are meaningful to parents. It helps me to know what kinds of questions they might be having about school."

Besides doing her own direct marketing, Guo works closely with school principals, encouraging them to identify potential parent leaders and inviting them to attend parent education classes. Each school can send ten parents to the annual Parent Leadership Conference in the spring, as well as send parent-teacher teams throughout the school year to "Parent Expectations Support Achievement" (PESA), an intensive training program offered by the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

The members of each parent-teacher team are charged with the responsibility of going back to their local school and serving as facilitators and trainers for others in their school community. In the first year alone, nearly 800 parents completed the twelve-hour course. Guo estimates that thousands of parents have participated in PESA training, where they learn communication skills, homework strategies, and the power of positive reinforcement.

Big Investments Yield Big Payoffs

Paul Gonzales, a principal at Fedde Middle School, in the ABC Unified School District, has seen firsthand the power of his district's systemwide support for parent education and involvement.

Each year, he recruits fifteen to twenty new parents to attend the Parent Leadership Conference and to participate in the county-sponsored training for parents and teachers. "We're only supposed to send ten," he confesses, "but I always ask for more space."

Beginning in the fall of 2000, Gonzales is adding one more option for parent leaders at Fedde Middle School: Using Title 1 and grant money, Gonzales has arranged to have the Parent Institute for Quality Education offer a curriculum specifically for middle school parents. At fifty dollars per parent (the school is paying all the fees), the program isn't cheap. But, says Gonzales, it represents a terrific opportunity to help middle school parents better understand how to support their children at home and at school.

"A lot of parents don't have the training and don't know how to ask the right questions," says Gonzales. "This course will give them those skills."

Parents and their children aren't the only beneficiaries of the many parenting workshops and seminars. The greater the parent participation, he says, the stronger the entire school community.

"Parents no longer feel helpless," Gonzales adds. "They know they are supported and are therefore more comfortable supporting their own children." The net result, he says, is a stronger, more committed school community.

"Everyone feels empowered," Gonzales says. "Everyone has a role to play."

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.
An adaption of this article is published in Edutopia: Success Stories for Learning in the Digital Age.

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