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Part Two: Nontraditional Gap Kid Needs Parent Engagement

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Guest Blogger Adrienne Thakur is a practicing attorney in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a member of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, the president of her son's elementary school PTA, and a member of the executive board of the 16th District PTA in Lexington, KY.

Here it is as promised, the second installment of a four-part guest blog series about how to engage nontraditional achievement gap students. I am talking about students who may meet the definitions of "gap students," who are achieving on level, but not progressing at that same rate as non-gap students. In the first installment, I proposed this three-pronged approach to finding a solution to this problem: 1) Engaging parents; 2) Engaging teachers; and 3) providing opportunities for nontraditional gap students to thrive in rigorous classroom environments regardless of their zip codes, cultural backgrounds, amount of parent involvement or school's budget.

This installment will focus on the first prong: parent engagement. Our parents, guardians and family members can often be our best advocates. There is no doubt that all parents want their children to succeed in school. There is no doubt that all parents are involved, on some level (great or small, effectively or not) in that achievement. My experiences working with parents in Kentucky, particularly, Fayette County, and in my circle of friends nationwide, have shown me over and over that parents of nontraditional gap students face particularized hurdles and challenges to parent engagement and involvement. Their hurdles aren't about access to reading or math intervention, special education, free and reduced lunch, or transportation. These parents must know more about the opportunities for special academic programs, admission requirements, who to contact for that push of additional support or to figure out why additional support is not being provided, etc. This information, albeit anecdotal, strikes a chord with me. It begs the question what is it that makes it so difficult for parents of these students to advocate for their children, to permeate school buildings and school hierarchies to help their children who are different? Ok, I admit it, I can ask the question, but I have not really come up with an answer. I do know, though, that these parents struggle with knowing who to call, where to ask and what to ask once they do arrive. Many just want to know what to do to engage with the school or school district. That is an issue that can be addressed.

In Kentucky, parents have multiple opportunities to engage with the providers of their children's education. One of the best ways to be effective is by knowing who to ask, what to say, and how to say it. Parents have to be trained on how to access the "system". Parent leadership trainings and community organizing programs "expand [parents'] knowledge of how the system works and how to make it work for their children. Unlike school-based parent involvement, parent leadership and community organizing programs build partnerships to support schools and hold them accountable for results."

I want to highlight two programs that teach parents how to engage effectively and properly. Yes, properly. There is no question that if a parent does not approach his or her engagement the right way, at the right time, and with the right people, that s/he might well not have bothered at all. Two programs in Kentucky that address this are: the Governor's Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership (GCIPL) an initiative of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and the Urban Family Engagement Network (UFEN) an initiative of Kentucky's 16th District PTA. Both programs educate and empower parents, but their approaches and parent audiences are slightly different. As a disclaimer, I am substantially involved in both these programs. I am proud to say that my GCIPL project and at least two others are still going strong in my son's elementary school. I also served as a UFEN Core Team member and trainer this year.

GCIPL has existed in Kentucky since 1997 (as CIPL until 2013). GCIPL reports that it has "trained over 1,700 parents on how to effectively advocate for high-quality schools. More than four dozen CIPL fellows have served on school boards, over 750 have served on school councils, and hundreds more are involved daily in education advocacy." You can read more about its mission and impact on this website. What GCIPL gets right is that it accepts parents from all parts of the state and puts them together to create a network of engaged parents. GCIPL and its Prichard Committee coaches provide intensive training over six full days (two days in three consecutive months) on how to understand jargon used by school systems, how to find out about school performance, to understand a student's individual test scores, to understand data, and more. At the end of the six sessions, parents have learned how to learn about the how, why and where of their children's daily experiences at school, the policies that drive them, and how to affect them.

GCIPL also requires parents to study school data and to create, plan and implement a student achievement-centered project that engages other parents in their child's school. The project is created during the training. A mini-grant is provided and the coaches help the parents implement their projects and utilize community resources, other parents, and school staff over a specified time period. The project takes the same form as school improvement plans. This is important because the parent is instantly educated on what it is like to create a program to meet specific academic standards based on the data-driven needs of a particular student body (just like the educators have to). Parents also learn to identify which students are in need at their child's school and how to do something to address those needs. This type of program is particularly important for nontraditional gap students' parents because it instructs them and empowers them with motivation, information, and support to make a difference for their own child and others through direct participation in school programming. Parents who become involved through GCIPL become allies with the school staff. They also become resources for other parents. These parents are no longer too shy or too ignorant about school processes to speak up for the lagging achievement of their students.

The 16th District PTA, which encompasses all of Fayette County, Kentucky school district, received a grant and began implementing the National PTA's UFEN in the Fall of 2013. According to its website, UFEN aims to train families in urban areas how "to understand specific ways to collaborate with schools to support their children's education...and to address the barriers and issues that prevent urban parents and families from being actively involved...." Read more about National PTA UFEN here.

UFEN takes a slightly different approach than GCIPL in that one of its primary goals is to explain school systems to parents and to encourage them to get involved while attempting to remove barriers that may impede participation. It too asks the parents to come up with a project, but it is to be done as a group, and funds for implementation are not provided. Trained PTA volunteers present UFEN training to parent participants. In Fayette County, the goal is to have programs in English and Spanish, thereby reaching more parents. UFEN training is held over nine weekly sessions that last two hours each. Parents who need transportation are provided vouchers, and childcare is provided during the sessions for all the participants' children. The parents meet and learn about government organization, the distribution of power in policy-making, what their rights are as citizens and as parents. They are encouraged to ask questions and to become informed about their students' performance, teachers, school, and school district. They are also encouraged to be on school councils and committees whenever possible.

Although these programs are different, their goal is the same: to engage parents for the improved achievement of all students. Both GCIPL and UFEN realize that when engaged parents are missing, the education puzzle is not complete and students suffer. This level of knowledge and empowerment is especially important for parents of nontraditional gap students because these students are slipping through the cracks. And as you know, we cannot afford to let that happen.

A student with a parent advocate is a student who too feels empowered, supported, worthwhile and engaged because through the trained parent, the child is a part of the discussion in a whole new and meaningful way. In Kentucky, individual schools, school districts, post secondary education partners and business partners are all very supportive of these programs, and are essential to their continued success. I hope this trend continues and spreads so that all parents can have the opportunity to be trained and supported. Why? So that when the parent is asked the question, "How can we better help or teach your child?" the parent is prepared with an answer and can help develop the solution. The engaged leadership of informed, trained and dedicated parents can make a difference!

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