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Training Parent Liaisons
A parent liaison is considered a critical player in the effort to generate greater and more positive connections between parents and their children's school. In Title I schools across the country, such as those in IPS and in the state of Utah, there has been a movement to ensure that liaisons are in place to help facilitate parents' involvement in the education of their children. Depending on where they work, a liaison's duties might include (but not necessarily be limited to) any of the following: conducting home visits, staffing parent centers, distributing NCLB information, administering surveys about the family friendliness of schools, informing parents about their children's performance (both good and bad), providing training on parenting skills, and supplying information about how families can meet their basic needs (often liaisons distribute community resource lists identifying agencies that can help find housing, employment, etc.). The range of duties and importance of the role argue for comprehensive, ongoing training.
Deliver a Broad Curriculum to Liaisons
Liaison training is important for ensuring that liaisons are effective communicators with parents and have a clear understanding of the sometimes very technical information they need to communicate or about which they may be asked, such as matters related to school performance (e.g., how to interpret a school NCLB-required report card). In addition, training can help liaisons better define their role, can ensure greater consistency in the work of liaisons across schools, and can plant the seeds for an informal mutual-support network among liaisons within a district or region.
In the 2005–06 school year, IPS contracted with the Indiana Partnerships Center to facilitate a series of full-day training sessions for the district's new title I parent liaisons. Held monthly, the sessions run in length from two to six hours, adding up to approximately 50 hours of training per year. In addition to the session on how to connect with hard-to-reach parents, mentioned in Part I (p. 26), topics include: creating family friendly environments in IPs schools, research frameworks on effective parent engagement, NCLB and Indiana's Public Law 221, cultural competency, how parents can support math and reading achievement, and parents' roles in school-based decision-making.
The National Network of Partnership Schools
The National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS), based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., is a project of the university's Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships, directed by research scientist Joyce Epstein. Schools that belong to the network create an "action team for partnerships," which includes but is not necessarily limited to parents, teachers, administrators, counselors, and students in the upper grades. The team then creates a one-year action plan, choosing activities that map to NNPS's framework for six major types of involvement: parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision-making, and collaborating in the community. NNPS staff have developed a one-day training workshop for schools wanting to take this approach. In addition to providing direct training workshops for schools, NNPS take a train-the-trainers approach to prepare PIRC staff, district staff, and others who, in turn, work directly with schools.
Members that join the network receive: the School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Your Handbook for Action,11 which includes a framework of the program, tips and tools for implementing the model, and assessment tools, along with information for sustaining partnership efforts; an invitation for key action team members to attend workshops and conferences at NNPS's Johns Hopkins headquarter; a semiannual newsletter designed to share examples of best practices, solutions to challenges, and guidelines for continuous progress in program development; an annual collection of promising practices; telephone, e-mail, and Web site assistance from NNPS staff; and additional tools and services.
As of September 2005, more than 1,000 schools, 130 local districts, and 16 state departments of education had joined the network, which supports district and state leaders in various ways, including hosting a spring workshop for representatives from new district and state members to prepare them to conduct training for schools' action teams for partnerships and other presentations. Because the growing number of schools requesting to join NNPS exceeds its capacity to meet their training and support needs on its own, this train-the-trainers approach is essential, allowing districts and states to support their own school-level partnership efforts.
The Utah Family Center also provides preparation and ongoing support for liaisons, through quarterly training sessions on such topics as NCLB, cultural competency, conducting effective home visits, parents' roles in children's literacy development, as well as training to promote the National Network of Partnership Schools model, a school-based model that builds school community and promotes parent involvement (see above, "The National Network of Partnership Schools"). In addition to its standard liaison curriculum, the center provides ad hoc training as needed. For all training, liaisons travel to the PIRC's main office in Salt Lake City and are reimbursed for lodging, food, and transportation.
Through their trainings on cultural competency and literacy, among other things, Utah's parent liaisons have become adept at identifying and responding to the needs of the families they serve. For example, recognizing that many parents, particularly new immigrants, are not literate themselves in English, liaisons have visited homes and modeled for parents a "book walk," in which a parent talks to a child about the pictures in a book and, based on the pictures, helps the child consider what the story might be about. Because variations on this form of storytelling are used in many cultures, this liaison service helps bridge home and school culture and makes parents feel that they can participate in helping their children even if the parents do not read or speak English.
ADI's PIRC has taken a different approach to the concept of parent liaisons. Working through ADI's Solid Foundation program, the PIRC helps participating schools to identify parents, teachers, and other school staff members who then are recruited and receive specific training for particular roles related to building a cohesive school community. For example, some may serve on the school community council while others may facilitate various parent courses. Another role is that of a home visitor, someone who helps implement specific family outreach projects planned by the school community council. One such project was a literacy-building effort in which, over the course of the summer, home visitors called on all families of second-graders, giving them books for their children and helping parents understand how they could help their children with reading. Solid Foundation's home-visitor preparation includes presenting procedures for a home visit, role-playing conversations in a home with parents, and distribution of multiple tools for conducting a successful visit (e.g., a script for scheduling a home visit, home-visit reminder, reporting form). Using a parent feedback form, ADI surveys parents about their experiences with a home visitor and uses the feedback to plan future visits and training. (See fig. 10, Academic Development Institute: Form for Parent Feedback on Home Visitors, below.)
Use Parents as Liaisons to Serve Families Of Special Needs Children
Champions Together, a program that focuses on serving and engaging parents of special needs students, has been a collaborative effort of ADI's PIRC and the Illinois Service Resource Center (ISRC), an Illinois State Board of Education technical assistance program funded with a grant under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The program offers training, as requested, for parents of children with disabilities (and who receive special education services) who want to serve as family liaisons—often as paid part-time liaisons—for other parents at their school whose children receive special education services. According to the program's brochure, the main purpose of having such a liaison is to "increase the comfort level of parents and establish positive relationships between parents and schools." Although ISRC representatives were having ongoing conversations with representatives of schools and districts around the state about the need to have a paid position for a family liaison at every school, at the time of this study there was no funding to do so. Nonetheless, some 250 volunteers had gone through Champions together's liaison training over the past few years and were hard at work in their schools across the state.
In the two-day Champions Together training, new liaisons become knowledgeable about IDEA and the contents of the Illinois State Board of Education's A Parents' Guide: The Educational Rights of Students With Disabilities,12 and they learn how to work with parents of children with disabilities, including how to form parent support groups and teach parent courses. What, to some, may seem like a lot to cover over two days, actually may be less intimidating to the volunteers themselves. Many of them are parents of special education students or special education teachers who are already very familiar with much of the curriculum.
Create Mutual-support Cohorts
Generally speaking, parent liaisons come from a range of backgrounds. At one end of the spectrum are those who have been stay-at home parents and have never worked outside the home; at the other end are those who come to the liaison job with extensive training and experience in related work (e.g., social work). Once liaisons are on the job, their experiences can vary significantly, as well. To encourage mutual support and learning from each other, the Utah Family Center schedules a time for "sharing" whenever liaisons come together for training. during these sharing sessions, the liaisons have reported on what they have been doing at their schools, what has worked well, and what challenges they are facing. This session gives them an opportunity to collect ideas from others in the field, as well as to offer and receive advice from colleagues. One liaison interviewed for this study asserted that "sharing stories and networking is one of the best parts of the training."
In its monthly training sessions for IPS liaisons, the Indiana Partnerships Center has encouraged those who have done home visits in the past to offer their advice about how to best ensure successful visits. Participants offered a variety of tips, for example, liaisons should be sure to at least taste any food offered by the families they visit because not to do so would be considered an affront in many homes. This kind of homegrown advice tends to be well received because, over the course of multiple training sessions, liaisons come to know and trust each other.
Collaborate With Other Agencies for Training
As noted earlier, partnerships can expand a PIRC's capacity to reach its goals. this is evident in the Champions Together program. In addition to profiting from their own collaboration, ADI and ISRC have sought, from the beginning, to engage parents and educators of special education children in every aspect of planning and developing the Champions Together program, seeing them, collectively, as a third partner. Focus groups consisting of parents, school administrators, school counselors, and special education experts informed the creation of the program at every step. The course curriculum used to support and educate parents about how to help their children with special needs at home and at school was written by directors of special education programs from throughout the state.
In Indiana, the IPS liaison training was planned and carried out through a collaboration comprising representatives of the Indiana Partnerships Center; of the community-based Bridges to Success program, which has worked since 1991 to develop school-community partnerships within IPS; and of the district's Title I office. This collaboration was created after the PIRC approached the Title I director and the IPS superintendent to ask if they needed help in designing and implementing a comprehensive training for the district's new Title I parent liaisons. Although the Indiana Partnerships Center had the capacity to provide much of the needed training, staff realized that a partnership with Bridges to Success would both strengthen the connection to the district and expand the PIRC's training capacity, allowing it to cover additional topics to which Bridges to Success brought expertise. Referring to how best to operate collaboratively, one Bridges to Success staff member says, "Early on, figure out who's got the flour and who's got the eggs—what is each group best at doing." Representatives of the three partners met many times to work out goals, agendas, and formats of the training, and they plan to continue meeting regularly.
Tips for Training Parent Liaisons to Effectively Link Parents and Educators