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Bridgeport Community Association to Teach Parents Advocacy

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How do parents learn to be successful advocates for their students?

In Bridgeport, Conn., there's training for that.

Thanks to a $30,000 grant from the Fairfield County Community Foundation, the Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition (BCAC) will be teaching parents "Civic Engagement 101," with two goals: to educate the community about teacher evaluations and accountability, and to give parents the skills and strategies to be successful advocates.

"Many of us felt that when the discussion starts around teacher evaluation and teacher accountability, it gets off to the wrong start," said Mary Pat Healy, executive director of BCAC, which soon will release its own teacher-evaluation report identifying best practices in Connecticut and throughout the country.

"We felt this would be a great opportunity to engage parents in understanding what best practices are out there, what it means in terms of teacher evaluations, and that it would create a really healthy dialogue," Healy explained.

BCAC is at work creating a discussion-guide template focused on teacher evaluations and it will arrange get togethers in people's homes for parents to discuss the topic with peers.

The training comes during a volatile time for the Bridgeport school system. On Feb. 28, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state was in violation of the law with its takeover of the Bridgeport school board, according to the Associated Press.

Officials had intervened to help turn around chronically low-achieving districts by appointing new board members, but the court ruled that the state should have offered training to the board members it ousted. Five former board members whose terms were not up will be reinstated, and a special election will be held for the four remaining seats. In the meantime, Superintendent Paul G. Vallas is forging ahead despite the ruling, as Christina Samuels noted in Education Week's "District Dossier" blog last week.

With the city's school leaders once again reforming their board, BCAC is preparing to revisit Civic Engagement 101, a training it tested last summer on a small scale. About 20 parents and grandparents met in BCAC workshops to gain hands-on experience in sending emails and letters of support, making phone calls to legislators and giving testimony at public hearings and meetings.

"It was a two-night series, and it went over extremely well," said Healy. "At the second session, all of the individuals came back with testimony—a statement—on an issue particularly dear to them."

Presenting their two- to three-minute statements as though at a board of education meeting, the participants were videotaped so they could see how they appeared. Then, they were given a constructive critique of how their message came across.

"It was a great learning experience. We heard some very personal stories and statements," Ms. Healy said.

Beyond helping parents in the public arena, the training is designed to help them speak with their students' teachers.

The idea is to help parents understand they have a right to speak out, and not only at public board meetings. "Some schools are very open and welcoming to caregivers," said Healy. "Others might not be as much so."

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