parent engagement

When We Listen to Parents, We Get Real School Choice

As a child, I often heard the words, “Listen to your parents.” It was usually uttered with a stern look and was often mandated from the pulpit. The lesson was clear: Parents are wise, and are to be heard and respected. Unfortunately, some educators have forgotten this cardinal rule. Too often, school districts, administrators and advocacy groups have a love-hate relationship with parents—the “customers” they are supposed to serve. Specifically, when parents become assertive and engaged, and begin to question teachers and administrators about the education their children are receiving, they can then be viewed as pests and troublemakers. That is, until they are needed. The engaged parent is often the very one asked to don t-shirts, carry placards and use their voices to advocate for a controversial education policy or additional funding. They are told what to say, who to contact and which part of their story to tell to reach the desired end. I’ve been guilty of participating in these activities myself. I’ve held community meetings with parents who were concerned about racial disparities in achievement, discipline issues and the graduation rates in my district. We built a social movement that resulted in the founding of a school that did more than just focus on closing achievement gaps. We were able to knit together a community of stakeholders that was built on trust, a shared vision, authenticity and transparency. Our flagship school was started by parents, led by parents and fought for by parents. Our community-based model quickly became a national proof point that demonstrated that all children, regardless of income level, neighborhood or academic history, could achieve at high levels.

Building Ivy Preparatory Academy

The parents who built Ivy Prep Academy 10 years ago were encouraged by school choice advocates to write letters, make calls and carry signs that would support their cause when our school faced a lawsuit by the district. Parents listened to and trusted this advice. Busloads of Ivy Prep parents and scholars showed up at local board meetings and rallied outside of the state capital to have their voices heard. These are the same parents who fought for the 2012 Charter Schools Amendment after a Georgia Supreme Court decision threatened to close our school and disrupt our daughters’ education. These were hard times for our school community, but leadership is hard. Founding and leading an underfunded, grassroots charter school, that was constantly under fire was exceptionally hard. I am proud to say that we never compromised the integrity of our academic program, displaced any of our scholars or alienated the parents who helped build and support the school. The personal and intellectual well-being of our scholars always remained our number one priority. Because this is an issue that many schools and districts grapple with, I have a word of advice for those who run schools that were created to offer choice. Listen to your parents. If you don’t they will take their children elsewhere. It does not matter if they appear disgruntled, ill-informed or small in number. You must hear them out. Parents have dreams and aspirations for their children. They are counting on quality schools to help their children realize those dreams. Parents want to help. They are your most important partner. If their children succeed, the school succeeds. Their questions are efforts to understand how they can help. Parents have multiple gifts and talents. They add tremendous value to the school community, and can help fill gaps that money can’t. They will be eager to recruit other families—if they are satisfied. Recently I had the opportunity to participate in an education summit hosted by Better Outcomes for Our Kids (BOOK), an Atlanta-based nonprofit that helps to expose parents to high-quality schools by showing them what a great school looks and feels like. I am encouraged by BOOK, and other organizations that are working tirelessly to engage stakeholders. Additionally, Parents Leaders United for Students (PLUS), an initiative powered by the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, is dedicated to developing the leadership capacity of parents. And then there are the leaders and researchers at The United Negro College Fund (UNCF), who provide access to advocacy toolkits and resources to parents and community members. I’m certain that our collaborative work together to engage and empower parents will produce the outcomes we all desire for our students. In closing, I'd like to offer one last word of caution to school choice leaders who only want parent advocacy when it suits their agenda. If you don’t listen to your customers, you won’t have any to serve.
Nina L. Gilbert launched EdCollab Atlanta to connect and support the hundreds of innovators, educators and community leaders who'd partnered with her during her 25 years in the education sector. Those in her professional network, affectionally refer to her as Dr. Nina, "the education doctor" because she is often called upon to help entrepreneurial leaders diagnose and find solutions for their ...

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