Engaging Parents in Education: Lessons From Five Parental Information And Resource Centers
June 2007
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Training Parents for Leadership

Of the five PIRCs highlighted, three—the Indiana Partnerships Center, the Family Works, and IDRA's PIRC—have implemented specific parent leadership training institutes. They have a common goal: Empower parents to lead other parents and educators in efforts to raise student achievement.

What is a parent leader? Whether playing a supportive role in a school beautification project conceived and planned by another parent, attending a school governance meeting chaired by another parent, or tutoring in an after-school program organized by another parent, many school volunteers are following the lead of someone else. That someone else is a leader—that parent who is so adept at identifying school needs and figuring out what needs to be done and who is able to enlist, advocate for, and represent other parents on behalf of the school's students.

Few parents are ready to become a leader without some encouragement and support, and even those who are can be more effective if they receive some training. In focus groups with parents who have gone through such training, the common message is that parents emerged feeling able to participate more fully in their schools, districts, state-level agencies, as well as in the individual education of their children.

Identify and Adapt a Training Model

After deciding to incorporate parent leadership training into their services, the first thing that the Indiana Partnerships Center, the Family Works, and IDRA's PIRC did was to look for a successful model from which to develop their own program. Although leadership training is a relatively new concept in the history of formal schooling, some organizations had been running trainings long enough to have built a positive reputation for success. The Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership (CIPL), which has been training over 200 Kentucky parent leaders a year since 1997, is one of those (see p. 49, "Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership"). Its "fellows" are expected to graduate from the program able to build partnerships with teachers and principals, persuade other parents to get involved in schools, implement strategies that will help all children reach higher levels of learning, and leverage outside funding to sustain their school improvement projects.

Each of the three PIRCs that have offered parent leadership training has adopted—and adapted—some aspects of the CIPL model, with all three covering essentially the same curriculum as CIPL. IDRA's PIRC broadened the model to cover four different types of parent involvement, starting with parents as teachers of their own children, as illustrated in fig. 11, Intercultural Development Research Association: Parent Leadership Training Model, on p. 50.

At the heart of its model, and evident throughout its training, is IDRA's recognition of parents' invaluable contribution to their own children's education and development, starting with parents' efforts to help their children learn and grow at home. Trainers work with participants to analyze these efforts, to instill in parents a sense of pride that they are already major contributors to their children's success, and to help parents overcome any feelings they may have about lacking relevant skills to help with their children's education. Pushing into the second circle of the model (i.e., parents as resources to the school), IDRA's PIRC trainers make every attempt to help parents understand how the skills they use in the home to teach their children and for other purposes can be applied at school.

Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership

To help parents become leaders, Kentucky's Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership (CIPL) delivers three two-day sessions over the course of several months, with participants' tuition, meals, and lodging all covered by CIPL. The training is carried out in all regions of the state, with parents participating in their home region. The main topics addressed in the sessions are parents' rights to know about and gain access to school operations and data, key elements of the state's education reform legislation and policy, where to go and whom to contact for information about educational and community resources, and specific ways to act as advocates for school reform. Staff from the Kentucky Department of Education are recruited to discuss the state's standards-based education system, and representatives from education agencies and organizations in the given region are invited to participate in a roundtable discussion about utilizing community resources to enhance student achievement. CIPL prepares parents to be leaders by providing them with information and data on school performance (e.g., student test scores, graduation rates) and developing their partnering skills.

A vital component of the training is a culminating project that program "fellows" are required to plan and implement and that utilizes skills and knowledge gained throughout the training. The parent must identify a student achievement-related priority need in a school or district, set a goal related to meeting the need, collect and analyze school data, design and implement an activity or strategy to meet the need, keep track of outcomes, and share the results with other CIPL fellows and the community at large. The project criteria stipulate that a project must focus on improving student achievement, involve other parents, and have a lasting impact on the school (not be just a one-time event). Fellows start designing their project early in the training and can take as long as two years to complete it, during which time they can draw on the support of CIPL, including a financial stipend and coaching.

After analyzing achievement data at his son's school and seeing that science scores had declined, one fellow decided to see what he could do to help improve them. He persuaded the school council to include a science lab in renovation plans, asked for a state audit of the school's science curriculum, and sponsored a well-attended family science night. The following year, test results showed that science scores had risen 14 percentage points, a gain that the fellow attributed at least in part to the increased amount of attention focused on science, thanks to his efforts.

In addition to carrying out school-based projects, many program fellows have gone on to play major policymaking roles in schools, districts, and at the state level, as members of:

School site councils – 650+;

Local school boards – 34;

State parent advisory councils – 39;

Scholastic audit teams – 7;

State textbook selection committees – 8; and

School council boards of directors – 8.

Because over the years the organization received so many calls from other groups trying to design and implement leadership programs, it created the Center for Parent Leadership (CPL), which provides consulting services and training to organizations across the country that are trying to implement their own programs.

Figure 11. Intercultural Development Research Association: Parent Leadership Training Model

Image with concentric circles, as described in the text. Inner circle: Parents as teachers of their own children/Los padres como primeros maestros. Second circle: Parents as resources to the school/Los padres como recursos para la escuela. Third circle: Parents as decision makers/Los padres como participants en la toma de decisiones. Fourth circle: Parents as leaders and trainers/Los padres como entrenaciones y lideres.

The goal is to help parents see the variety of ways they can participate in the classroom and elsewhere at school. Pushing into the third circle (i.e., parents as decision-makers), PIRC trainers help parents understand and further develop good decision-making skills as related to education. Finally, pushing to the outermost circle, PIRC trainers help parents develop and hone the skills needed to work in groups, support one another, and act collectively, as well as to effectively impart to other parents the knowledge they have developed throughout their own earlier training.

All three of the PIRCs (i.e., Indiana Partnerships Center, Family Works, IDRA's PIRC) that have adapted the CIPL model for their training also require that participants carry out a culminating project in their schools that gets other parents involved as well. These projects have ranged from efforts focused on getting more fathers involved in school to curriculum-oriented efforts, such as creating a children's book club and establishing a student math competition called Mathletics. All three PIRCs have the leadership trainees start their projects toward the beginning of the training; PIRC staff members then help as needed throughout the ensuing months of training, assessing progress and needs at each training session. Recognizing that some projects require resources beyond the planners' time and creativity, the Family Works' training program has awarded participants a $500 stipend to help fund their projects.

Although each of the training programs has offered multiple, recurring sessions over a period of months, the length of each session, their frequency, and the number of overall sessions has varied among programs, depending on the needs and desires of their constituents. For example, the Indiana Partnerships Center received feedback from participants saying they would like to cover the same material, but meet less often. So the center packed more content into each session, lengthening the time commitment for each meeting, but bringing participants together for only four overnights and three additional one-day sessions, instead of the original seven overnights.

Unlike the other two PIRCs, whose leadership training has been offered independent of any individual school or district, IDRA's PIRC offers the training only when it is requested by a host organization (e.g., a district). It also tailors the length and frequency of the sessions to the needs and desires of whichever organization is hosting the event. For the most part, its curriculum is delivered in five to eight monthly sessions of about three hours each.

IDRA's PIRC is also the only PIRC that offers bilingual leadership training, as reflected in the name of its training program, the Bilingual Parent Leadership Academy. One IDRA trainer notes that many districts have requested separate leadership academies, one in English and one in Spanish, but IDRA has refused to make this split because, he says, "a mission of leadership training is to bring people together." The Indiana Partnerships Center recently identified a need for parent leadership training in Spanish and, at the time of this study, was planning to pilot a Latino parent leadership academy.

Recruit Participants Who Mirror Their Community

Because IDRA's PIRC responds to district or other organizations' requests for training and delivers it at their sites, the host organization (i.e., the requesting district) is responsible for recruiting participants. In contrast, the Indiana Partnerships Center has been recruiting its leadership trainees by using its own database of contacts and by reaching out to other community organizations and education agencies to ask for nominations. In choosing from among applicants it makes efforts to ensure a diverse pool of participants that mirrors their communities. Each potential Parent Leadership Institute participant submits an application that addresses the candidate's participation in the school system. The applicant also must pledge to attend all training sessions and submit one personal reference. Unlike some of the other models, the Indiana Partnerships Center also requires that any school, district, or organization nominating an applicant send candidates in teams of at least two, which could be two parents or could be a parent and an educator. Parent candidates must have a child enrolled in an Indiana K–12 public (including charter) or private school.

The Family Works also has had an extensive outreach campaign to attract leadership trainees each year. Parents have been recruited through targeted mailing, using lists generated by the Maryland state Department of Education, Title I schools, the Maryland PTA, district family involvement offices, and other family support organizations. E-mail distribution lists and a network of program graduates serving as "ambassadors" also have been used. A Family Works staff person asserted that the PIRC has not looked to train established leaders, but, instead, has sought "traditionally not-involved or untapped parents who have capabilities." Applicants have had to receive a sign-off from the principal of the school they represent to ensure that the parent and school were establishing a productive partnership. Selection has been made by a committee of stakeholders charged with developing a cohort that is balanced, both geographically and racially, and that spans K–12 education.

Evaluate and Innovate to Improve

Although the Family Works has not allowed educators to participate in leadership training unless they do so as parents, IDRA's PIRC has actually targeted educators as a way of having greater impact, a goal that emerged in the natural course of the organization's self-reflection. PIRC trainers see the staff of a district's Title I office as a natural audience for the training. If district-level staff are trained, such as district-level parent coordinators or liaisons, who are connected to the extended education community, there is a much better chance that the model will proliferate. As one trainer puts it, "We're trying to work ourselves out of a job here by preparing them to train parent leaders, not us. The train-the-trainers model is always uppermost in our minds."

In this same vein, IDRA's PIRC offers additional leadership training to those who want to be able to train others. WOW! Workshops on Workshops (WOW) is a two-day training that provides future trainers with the skills to run their own effective, engaging workshops; it does so, in part, by reviewing recognized principles about how adults, in particular, tend to learn and by helping participants understand how to apply these principles in the context of designing innovative activities. In the 2005–06 school year, 132 parent leaders and educators participated in WOW training, and these participants, in turn, trained more than 3,960 parents on education issues.

For its part, the Indiana Partnerships Center has responded to participant feedback by beginning to offer regionalized leadership training rather than basing all training in Indianapolis and infusing it with a statewide perspective. In the 2005–06 school year, it instituted a regional leadership academy for Monroe County, to the south of Indianapolis; and, at the time of this study, it was planning to pilot a Latino parent leadership academy in another region that has a greater concentration of Latino families than elsewhere in the state. According to a 2005 external evaluation,13 the regional model "was shown to be as effective in promoting [parents'] skill development, confidence in coordinating with schools, and involvement in projects"14 as the centralized model of training that has been used since the PIRC began offering parent leadership training in 2003. The evaluation report also notes that in comparison to the state model, the regionalized training was far more specific and targeted in developing school-based projects. Another benefit of the regional approach, the report notes, is its reduction of travel time and costs for trainees.

Tips for Training Parents for Education Leadership

  • Identify and adapt current successful models of parent leadership training to meet your needs.

  • Enlist the help of community-based organizations, alumni of past training, and education agencies to recruit diverse participants that mirror the community.

  • To build capacity and reach, take a train-the-trainers approach (e.g., train district staff who, in turn, train school staff).

  • Evaluate and innovate a training program to meet the needs of targeted constituents regarding such matters as location, time requirements, and informational needs.

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Last Modified: 06/15/2009