Creating change does not necessarily require broad heroic acts. Often, it’s the small steps taken by many individuals that can bring about a transformation.
At the Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex (JSEC), a grassroots effort is underway to transform parent engagement at the high school. The Parent and Community Engagement Initiative was launched in September 2013 as an important part of the school’s improvement plan and is being led by Piedade Lemos, World Languages Department Chair.
Having begun her master’s degree, the initiative tied in perfectly with Lemos’s class on Issues in Public Education. She needed to focus on an issue that required transformation and JSEC was in need of a collaborative effort to improve parent involvement through a structured program.
A mission and vision statement frames the Parent Engagement Committee’s effort and led to the establishment of a Parent Executive Board, Parent Academy and subcommittees led by key members. The goal, said Lemos, “is to empower parents to become part of our school’s climate and culture. Without parent participation, teachers will continue to struggle with students’ discipline, attendance and academic issues.”
“I am very proud of the work they have done to engage parents in meaningful, thoughtful and intentional ways,” said JSEC Principal Michaela Keegan. “Too often, the work of engaging parents is misunderstood as attendance at Open House or meetings, and while this is obviously important, our Parent Engagement Committee, under Piedade Lemos’s leadership, has deepened the opportunities for our parents to contribute to and benefit from our school community.”
The group’s work has filled two four-inch thick binders with meeting agendas, event programs and district reports that detail their efforts. Lemos figures she has spent nearly 400 hours on parent engagement. Having energetic supporters, she said, made it easier to recruit volunteers.
“The JSEC community is so fortunate to have such a dedicated and passionate person leading parent engagement discussions and activities at the school,” said Janet Pichardo, director of the district’s Office of Family and Community Engagement. “Engaging parents at the high school level can be very challenging. However, Piedade’s personality and enthusiastic attitude encouraging parent involvement in their child’s education makes the recruitment effort less intimidating.”
To date, the group has organized two community walks comprised of parents, teachers, staff and student volunteers canvassing the school’s neighborhoods notifying families of upcoming school events and answering questions. Future school events will include a Parent Leader’s Week, International Family Day and a Mother’s Day program.
“We realized that, if parents weren’t coming to us, we would have to go to them,” said Lemos. “As a result of these efforts, we brought awareness to the community that we wanted them to become part of our school. We have made some strides, but there is still much to do.”
The group is creating a parent database capturing accurate contact information and surveys focusing on needed support and school issues. Recruitment continues with additional student ambassadors along with faculty and parent volunteers.
The Parent Engagement Committee members – through JSEC teachers Chuck Moreau and Susan Garland – plan to develop the group’s brand by creating a unifying logo.
Plans for a Parent Academy are underway that will offer parents the opportunity to enroll in practical skill courses such as ESL, resume writing, job searching, computer skills, and workshops on financial aid. In collaboration with the Genesis Center, the academy is progressing under the direction of Chairperson Kate Johnston along with the dedicated support of Lydia McManus, 21st Century Afterschool Grant Program Director.
The Parent Executive Team established clear by-laws to govern their work and elected new members to the board to lead this important effort. Elected members are: Gladys Pimental (President), Karina Rosa (Vice President), Paulina Estevez (Treasurer), and Neyci Cabreja (Secretary). The group meets bi-weekly with student ambassadors under Lemos’s guidance.
This team is the “core” of parent participation. “We want parents to empower other parents by planning school events,” said Lemos.
“It is no longer acceptable to have parents stand on the sidelines. “They must be part of the success of their children’s future,” she added.
Lemos invited Olga Pirela of the U. S. Department of Education’s Office of Communications and Outreach to visit the Parent Engagement Committee and offer her input.
“Family engagement is a critical ingredient in the success of children, school improvement and deepening community support for schools,” said Pirela. “It is important for teachers and administrators to enhance their skills in partnering with families throughout their children’s educational experience. The partnership developed at Juanita Sanchez High School fits the U.S. Department of Education’s Dual Capacity Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships. I applaud the school community’s efforts.”
Lemos, a 17-year teaching veteran, proactively manages multiple roles supporting education. In addition to guiding the Parent Engagement Initiative and leading JSEC’s World Languages Department, she is completing a master’s degree, working toward her principal’s license and superintendent’s certification. She teaches Spanish 3 and Advanced Placement classes. She is a member of the Rhode Island Department of Education’s Ambassador’s Design Team that is developing a strategic plan to address educational issues. She also enjoys studying other languages and cultures including Japanese.