Parent and Community Outreach in the Spotlight

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and Michigan Education Association President Steve Cook joined forces to bring the National Education Association’s Standing Strong for Students Back-to-School Tour to the Detroit area on Tuesday. The day began with local radio interviews, outreach to education bloggers, and breakfast with some two-dozen local Association presidents from the metro-Detroit area.

The pair also teamed up to learn more about Romulus Middle School, a participant in NEA’s national Priority Schools Campaign. Romulus Middle School is a recipient of a School Improvement Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Grant monies have allowed the school to improve its technology footprint and revamp its curriculum.

What NEA is providing, and what the grant doesn’t, is training and support for a series of parent and community outreach initiatives. Those efforts are especially important considering the financial and political dynamics of the community.

Romulus is a middle-class, working class community hit especially hard by the long fight to stabilize the U.S. auto industry coupled with major job losses due to the faltering economy.

Romulus voters and taxpayers were asked twice to increase property taxes to support local schools, and twice the effort failed. With help from NEA and MEA, the third time was a charm, and voters approved the funding increase for their community schools.

“Voters supported this effort because members of the local Association and larger school community reached out directly and were very specific about how the money would be used,” Van Roekel said. “Now it’s important that parents and the community be involved in the implementation of the programs these new funds will support. The community needs to see firsthand that the money is being used successfully to do exactly what was promised. I’m proud that NEA can provide the support necessary to make that community outreach successful.”

Meanwhile, NEA Secretary-Treasurer Becky Pringle saw elements of success at Hawthorne Elementary School in Seattle, Washington. Pringle was on day two of her back-to-school tour, which began yesterday in Evansville, Indiana, and will conclude Wednesday in Las Vegas.

At every stop, Pringle emphasizes a cookie-cutter approach won’t work to improve schools. “I talk about Hawthorne all the time,” she said today, “I don’t tell people, ‘Do what Hawthorne did.’ Every school is different. But there are common themes.”

At a morning conversation with Pringle along with Washington Education Association President Mary Lindquist, Seattle Education Association President Olga Addae, Seattle Education Association Vice President Jonathan Knapp, and Seattle Superintendent Susan Enfield, staff members spoke of the transformation they have carried out with help from a federal School Improvement Grant.

This year, the school made “adequate yearly progress” as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Physical education teacher Jon Francois-Stone said it was frustrating in the past to “work so hard, and then you fail” in meeting the test score standard. This year, “it’s great, coming back and achieving.”

Teacher Charlene Smith-Brown said there have been big changes since she started working at Hawthorne 10 years ago.

“When I came here, everybody did their own thing,” she said. Now, they work together. The staff also work extremely long hours. “This is not an easy job. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. I’m concerned about burnout, especially for children with young families. I couldn’t do what I do if I had young children. But it’s the best job in the world.”

A critical element in Hawthorne’s transformation has been engaging families. Family support staffer Marcel Hauser said his role is doing whatever it takes to help a family bring their child to school ready to learn, whether that’s finding food or shelter or help with domestic problems.

WEA President Lindquist said she was glad to hear that the staff is not just focusing on test score data. “It’s good to hear you’re not just paying attention to the numbers associated with each child, but to the whole child,” she said.