With 117 years of promoting parent involvement under its collective belt, the PTA thinks it has the right formula for training parents in their new watchdog role under California’s reformed school finance and accountability system.
The PTA program, called School Smarts, is aimed at giving elementary school parents the tools they need to advocate for their children and their school. The program includes a seven-week series of night meetings, held at school sites, that highlight the importance of parent involvement for their children’s success; explain how the school system works at the state, district and school level; and offer effective strategies to use to advocate for change.
School Smarts is being piloted in 14 school districts and 50 schools throughout California, including Sunshine Gardens Elementary in South San Francisco.
On a recent Thursday evening at Sunshine Gardens, about two dozen families gathered for dinner before the parents participated in the second weekly School Smarts training session. The sessions last from about 6:30 until 8 p.m. Child care is provided for the children in the cafeteria, while their parents attend the session in a nearby classroom.
Parents who have graduated from the program came to dish out the enchiladas, rice and beans and help the new parents – many new to the country as well as California’s public school system – get acclimated.
The graduates said the program has been transformative.
Erica Sanchez Vallejo, who graduated from the program three years ago, is from Mexico. “Over there parents do not get involved in education,” she said. “Here the focus is on educating the parents and being involved with your child even if you don’t know English. I want to see my daughter go all the way to college and graduate. This is what this program has taught me.”
Isela Ramirez said she has become more involved with her children since graduating from the program, expanding their learning beyond the normal school day.
“I read to them daily,” she said. “They’re involved in sports. I take them to the library. I do arts and crafts with them. I keep them engaged.”
She also attends more school functions, including school board meetings, and has become vice president of the campus PTA. “I feel like I have a voice,” she said.
Ryan Wibawa – who came with his family, including his now 10-year-old son Vincent, to the United States two years ago from Indonesia – was attending his second session of the program. An engineer, Wibawa said he is eager to learn more about the school system and hopes to be involved in making decisions about the use of technology. He too notes a difference between the education system in his home country and here.
“In Indonesia, they are focused on test scores,” he said. “Children know what to do, but they don’t know why they need to do it. Here children are encouraged to be creative.”
“I like it here better,” piped up Vincent.
Colleen You, president of the statewide PTA, said that the School Smarts curriculum is based on research on how to involve parents, and was positively evaluated after its first year in 2010-11 by SRI International. The researchers found that the vast majority of parents felt much better informed about how to support their children at home and at school after the program than they had before. They also expressed a much greater willingness to become involved in various school committees and said they better understood how to make changes at their school.
Each year, the School Smarts curriculum is revised, You said. This year, session 3 is about the state’s Local Control and Accountability Plan, which requires districts to include parents in deciding how funds should be spent to improve student achievement.
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is funding the pilot program at no cost to schools. But Alameda Unified was so impressed with the pilot that it decided to make it a district program, this year allocating $5,000 for each of its 10 elementary schools. The funds cover child care, interpreters, materials, a light dinner and a stipend for a coordinator.
Often graduates of the program teach the classes.
“Those graduates can empathize with the struggles of the new parents,” said Barbara Adams, assistant superintendent at Alameda Unified.
Adams said that School Smarts graduates are participating at all levels in her district: school site councils, English learner advisory committees and the new Local Control and Accountability Committee. School Smarts gives parents an opportunity to “build their self-confidence, know that their advocacy for their child is important, and learn how to advocate in ways that result in the action they are hoping to achieve,” she said.
Creativity is also part of the lesson plan in School Smarts, which includes an art project in most of the sessions. Part of the program’s goal is to turn parents into advocates for including arts in the curriculum.
On this Thursday, Sunshine Gardens parents gathered in the 5th grade classroom of teacher Michelle Carabes, who leads the PTA training sessions. Her room is an advertisement for how to use art to make other subjects, such as math, come alive.
Not an inch of wall space is spared, as children’s colorful projects dominate the room, even hanging in the air from clotheslines. One clothesline holds a series of flowers called “Blooming Facts,” a project in which students assign numbers to the letters in their first name (A=1; B=2, etc.), then add up the numbers to determine whether their “name” is a prime number or a composite. Students show how many factors are in their name’s number by drawing petals for each factor on the flowers they have created.
The parents’ project that Thursday – to make paper masks that represent their child – also gives them a chance to get to know each other. Parents from different cultures and economic backgrounds sit on short, kid-sized chairs around tables, exchanging ideas, materials and laughter.
After completing their masks, one parent from each table held up a mask and explained it.
Lidia Munoz, who has a 5th grade daughter at Sunshine Gardens, chose to depict her 17-year-old son, Joel. Joel is focused on math, particularly the issue of infinity. She made the pupils in the mask’s eyes the mathematical sign of pi, an infinite number.
Kimberly Abalos held up a pink mask with a tiara representing her daughter, Ruthie, 7, who loves books, dance and fantasy. “I gave her only one ear,” Abalos quipped, “because she halfway listens to me.”
Wibawa’s mask of the quick-to-comment Vincent had an exclamation mark in the mouth.
The art element is a favorite among parents. “I reconnected with the artist in me after so many years,” said Marivic Quiba, a graduate of the program.
Quiba summed up what she learned from School Smarts in a speech at a Parent Engagement Night meeting at Sunshine Gardens, held to encourage parents to sign up for the training program.
The program has showed her that “learning begins at home, then at school, then back home – it’s just a cycle,” she said. “It’s taught me how to get involved, to understand the school system, to know your child’s progress and what they’re learning.”
School Smarts has also taught her “to be visible,” she said, “to speak up for the children to ensure they receive the education they so richly deserve.”