This article appeared on page nine of the Elgin monthly Bravo on October 2, 2016. You may access a digital version of this print publication here.
Charles Payne, an expert in school reform, once wrote that efforts at school reform keep failing for a simple reason – “the sheer inability of adults to cooperate with one another.”
With that emphasis on cooperation, Illinois Humanities, a Chicago-based nonprofit, is leading a series of dialogues across Illinois with the goal of increasing the public’s awareness of education policy and the complexity of reform, as well as of modeling productive discussion and debate about the issue. We’re calling it Continuing Ed. – Parents and the Future of Education in Illinois.
Meant to draw in parents whose voices are often drowned out in discussions about quality schooling, this statewide conversation is taking place in Chicago, Decatur, around Jackson County in the south of the state, and Elgin. Programs have already started in Chicago, but Continuing Ed. will be coming to Elgin in October – with a small-group discussion at the Gail Borden Library on October 13th at 6pm and a townhall at Elgin High School on October 24th – both events looking at school funding
Talking to people preparing for the series or at events, we’ve been surprised that while many people say they’re only hearing about the bad news, there are actually lots of exciting things happening in education across Illinois. And despite the vast differences between individual districts across the state, many are actually facing similar challenges, including demographic changes, underfunded schools, attracting and keeping good teachers, and engaging parents, to name a few.
This last one – engaging parents – happens to be a bright spot in U-46, Elgin’s school district. This is due in part to the efforts of Karla Jimenez, who leads the Parent Leadership Institute. The PLI, an initiative of U-46 that was started in 2010, aims to increase the engagement of parents of Hispanic or African-American children by giving them the tools to do so. Cristina Colunga, a current participant, explains that the PLI “gives us a chance to meet leaders in the school district, learn about various programs offered in the District, and discuss important topics among our peers.” In classes taken over two years, parents learn about the offerings of U-46, but also practice more general skills, like negotiating and dispute resolution. According to current participant Nadia Garrett, the PLI has encouraged Elgin parents to “get involved, learn about U-46, make a difference, and increase leadership skills.”
There is little doubt about the importance of parental engagement for children. As Colunga notes, parents are, in fact, “the most influential educators a child will have.” Nevertheless, parental engagement cannot be taken for granted. One reason is all too familiar to parents – time and energy. But things like navigating school bureaucracy are also part of the story. “As a parent of three African-American boys, two with special needs, I knew the journey would be daunting and I would need guidance to navigate the vast amount of resources available in U-46,” says PLI-graduate Jennifer Wells. “So many people take a backseat in the school system,” Colunga explains, “because they feel they might not be educated enough, needed, or simply don’t have the time.”
What parents learn in the PLI is, in many ways, unquantifiable. But that doesn’t mean that the program’s effects have not been felt in U-46. Recent graduate Tangela Young is proud to “voice ways of making changes that will benefit all children within this District or anywhere.” According to Nadia Garrett, becoming involved with PLI “has made me eager to be a part of U-46 and much more positive about my children’s educational future. It gave me a chance to meet other parents and discuss topics relevant to us and our community while working to problem-solve better solutions for our children.” Jennifer Wells, too, has responded to the call to become more engaged: “I am now PTO Co-Vice President at my sons’ school. I also received a personal request from the principal to represent the school on the Citizen’s Advisory Council this year.”
In putting together Continuing Ed., we’ve found that inspiring and innovative programs like the Parent Leadership Institute can be found across the state – it’s just that we don’t often hear about them. On the news, we tend to hear other stories about budget shortfalls or potential strikes. These stories are important, but scary stories won’t solve tough problems.
Instead of advocating for a specific policy position, Continuing Ed. is supporting meaningful public discussions about important issues concerning education. Because they are so foundational, it’s not surprising that issues like education often divide. But programs like the PLI show that meaningful change begins with healthy curiosity and open conversation. In our Continuing Ed. series, Illinois Humanities hopes to support the type of engagement that groups like the PLI are encouraging – parental engagement is important, but also depends on who parents engage and how.
Continuing Ed. will host townhalls and small-group discussions in Elgin in October, December, and February. There will also be a concluding roundtable discussion at the Gail Borden Library on April 20. For more information about the series, please visit www.ilhumanities.org/education or write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Elliot Heilman is the Communications Director for Illinois Humanities, a non-profit devoted to strengthening society by fueling inquiry and conversation about the ideas and works that shape our culture.