It’s no secret that in RI, there’s been a great deal of controversy around changing graduation requirements. Among the copious related details for schools to consider, is educating students and families about these changes in a meaningful way- a task much easier said than done… especially in communities already struggling to foster ongoing collaboration between schools and families.
One such community is Providence. A series of meetings was held during the 2012-2013 academic school year, at which both Mayor Angel Tavares and Superintendent Susan Lusi addressed families and described the upcoming changes to graduation requirements. Notices were sent home, and meetings occurred at most Providence high schools with minimal attendance.
These attendance levels likely did not shock anyone. The Providence School Department, a city in which 71% of its residents speak Spanish, has been addressing families in English at school meetings (with translation services available) for years.
The teachers at the Juanita Sanchez Complex took the initiative to invite families to their meeting in a different way. With teachers leading the charge, their meeting’s attendance was the highest of any meeting at their school in years.
So how did teachers on a voluntary committee change the course of community engagement in the Broad Street neighborhood? Teachers knew that sending home a notice to families would not bring them to a meeting, even if that notice was printed on colored paper. These changing graduation requirements were going to have the greatest impact on students with borderline or low NECAP scores- the children of the parents that MUST be engaged. Specifically, 80% of juniors scored a 1 on the NECAP math assessment. These families needed to be reached.
Teachers collaborated with a small group of families, and they listened. As they listened… the number of families involved grew… and their ideas about how to best engage families began to take shape. After much collaboration and organization, their ideas about how to invite families to a meeting looked very different than they had before. There was still a paper notice… but it looked much more like a theater ad, and was created by a talented teacher from Mt. Pleasant High School.
Additionally, their plan to invite families didn’t rely on students bringing a notice home, or families separating it from the junk mail. Instead, on March 2 a group of 80 parents, educators and students spent their morning together talking to local owners, employees and customers of the neighborhood businesses that line Broad Street. Organized into groups maximizing the language skills of each group member, participants armed with maps, talking points, posters and passion moved from business to business wearing shirts boasting their mission, “Graduating Providence.”
How did it go? Well, businesses hung up “Graduating Providence Tee shirts,” some of which can still be seen hanging behind cash registers or on walls. Stacks of posters/flyers were gladly accepted by business owners and later made their way into residents’ homes via grocery bags and friendly community conversation.
But to truly measure the effectiveness of this work, we should consider the turnout at family meeting, the sustainability of the community outreach and engagement or even more importantly- the impact on student learning. The event itself was attended by more than 400 family members- a record… But the attendance in the following months, at an April vacation intervention course, and a summer skills course may even be more noteworthy. 70 students spent their April vacation at school learning, and 300 attended a summer credit retrieval course.
Interestingly, two weeks ago teachers, students and parents took to the streets again with their folders, maps, flyers and talking points. This time they were promoting the school’s annual Open House. At the well attended Open House event, the foreign language teacher-leader and Committee Chair Piedade Lemos, had a “packed house” in a Parent Session, according to principal Michaela Keegan. Parents took surveys, signed up to work on the new school website or to take free English as a Second Language classes.
“In trusting the teachers to build something, it’ll happen,” says Keegan, who credits the teachers for the success of this grassroots effort to engage the community. The work of the Family and Community Engagement Committee, now the largest committee at the school, is voluntary. Teachers like Piedade Lemos, organize and execute this important work before and after school and on weekends.
So, what will the Providence Public School Department do with this success? How will the school department honor the voices of its families? It’s important to note that at the March 6 meeting, for the first time in the history of Providence Public Schools, the meeting began in Spanish.
Teachers, students and families beautify the campus at the Sanchez Complex in preparation of the 2013 Open House Event.[images: Charles Moreau]