Parent University In Grand Rapids Is Changing Lives & Improving Student Outcomes

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Mike Gallagher, Correspondent

Several years ago the question was a simple, but important one for many parents in the Grand Rapids area: “How do we help our children reach their full potential?”

Parents in four neighborhoods called “Hope Zones” wrestled deeply with this question in neighborhood meetings conducted by LINC Revitalization with parents concluding that they needed a parent education program designed for and by them.

The persistence of the parents struck a chord with many of the city’s philanthropic, business and education leaders.

The answer? The creation of Parent University designed to focus on four areas of support:

  • Effective parenting
  • Personal growth and development
  • Navigating the educational system
  • Health and wellness

Importantly, the support structure to create such a unique program as Parent University was already in place in Grand Rapids with the earlier launching of Believe 2 Become (B2B), a collaborative partnership of hundreds of people and organizations who believe in the unlimited potential of Grand Rapids’ children.

B2B offers a rich set of opportunities and support that includes summer enrichment, school attendance challenges, neighborhood engagement and after-school experiences for students, workshops and coaching for parents and positive recognition for achievement - all directed by residents who live, work and learn in four central-city neighborhoods.

Teaming to make B2B a success was the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) with funding and in-kind support provided by the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation.

Since its launch, the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation has taken on a lead philanthropic role within B2B and Parent University.

“In our community initiatives unit of the foundation we embrace the model of catalytic philanthropy holding true to one of its important tenets that philanthropy must take equal responsibility for the results of its investments,” says Chana Edmond-Verley, senior program officer, Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation.

“B2B solely exists to rally and mobilize hundreds of organizations in our community to support children in succeeding and getting results,” she adds.

Mel Atkins, executive director of Grand Rapids Public Schools’ (GRPS) Community and Student Affairs, and lead of the district’s parent engagement office, says the public/private partnership where philanthropy sits at the table equates to more than dollars.

“We can share data with a trusted partner, co-develop a plan and foster the kind of transparency that empowers an entire community to share in shaping solutions that help all of its children succeed.”

Since Parent University was started in 2013, it now has two full years of operations under its belt with GRPS and B2B coming together at least once a month to look at programming and improve what it offers.

What makes Parent University really work, says Edmond-Verley, “are the parent leaders, parent ambassadors and community partners participating in the Parent Engagement Collaborative (PEC) along with the district and our collective. They all bring a laser-like focus to foment positive change.”

This collaborative amplifies the voice of parents to set its mission and shape its learning agenda, and gives voice to the parents who come up with the categories of learning that are the basis of Parent University, notes Edmond-Verley.

Online courses, classroom experiences, workshops, meetings and discussion are all designed around the need and time constraints of the participating parents and caregivers.

“Parent University, in conjunction with our Challenge 5 campaign, was one of the key strategic platforms used to educate parents district-wide about the importance of school attendance,” shares Atkins.

One of B2B’s signature vehicles in its community change work is its community co-design process.

According to Atkins and Edmond-Verley, B2B brought in a facilitator to engage parents, GRPS and community partners in a process to design Parent University. That process was a powerful one, they say, attentive to lifting up the voice parents.

“Parents said they wanted to be ‘confident advocates of their children’s success’ and learning about how to do this would fuel their confidence,” says Edmond-Verley. “The co-design process helped everyone conceptualize the details.”

“Parents come up with the categories of learning they want,” she adds. “All we really do is tap into the power of potential. Every parent wants to see their children succeed and every parent has the potential to contribute to their children’s success. All children have the potential to learn, grow and achieve. Real-life courses are available right in the hands of parents.”

Backed by B2B’s hundreds of supporting organizations throughout Grand Rapids, Parent University officially opened its doors in October 2013 and to date has garnered more than 28,000 visits to its website and an additional 8,000 participants in the classroom offerings. And those numbers are growing.

Parents and caregivers take part in the online courses, they come to the workshops offered at the various Grand Rapids schools in their community and those offered by community organizations which are strenuously vetted by B2B officials before they are accepted into Parent University curricula.

Most of the online content for Parent University is designed by the Grand Rapids-based Creative Change Mission, founded in 2011 as a collaborative studio of consultants, strategists, writers, artists, video producers and digital designers which welcomes referrals for communication engagements in education, philanthropy, corporate social responsibility, online learning management systems and select culture change initiatives.

Jan Wilkins is the Parent Engagement Coordinator for the GRPS district and oversees the operations of Parent University.

“Every year (at Parent University) we are learning new things and we tweak the program,” says Wilkins. “It is growing in reputation…and different organizations want to be a part of it.

“We vet organizations thoroughly that want to facilitate classes for Parent University. We make sure their information is research based, they have a successful track record and they are able to meet the needs of the diverse community that makes up the GRPS.

“We look for new programs that are built around buckets that navigate the educational process for our parents,” says Wilkins. “For example, some topics include how to transition from elementary to middle school and homework. We also offer classes on effective parenting.

“Helping with homework is a popular topic. Also, our Parent Leadership class is taught by the Grand Rapids’ Urban League and is part of our parent leadership power parent tract. Additionally, a new class requested by parents will be preparing them for parent/teacher conferences.

“Parents can take classes to work on personal development, English as a second language and learning computers. Another bucket centers on health and wellness.”

Navigating the educational process includes classes such as Helping Students with Homework; Understanding the Elibrary system; and how to use the district’s PBIS program at home,” notes Wilkins.

PBIS is a proactive, team-based framework for creating and sustaining safe and effective schools. Educators emphasize prevention of problem behavior, development of pro-social skills and the use of data-based problem solving for addressing existing behavior concerns. The result is a fair, firm and consistent approach to rules, safety and discipline, according to GRPS officials.

New this year is the Power Parent program. By taking online classes, attending Parent University classes, attending and reporting on parent/teacher conferences and their child’s attendance, parents can earn Power Parent status in the school district.

Additionally, information about GRPS’ new synergy software program also will be available on the group’s website and through Parent University.

The foundation, along with GRPS representatives, also serves on the leadership committee. Community organizations, school principals, Kent School Services Network coordinators, LINC and parents in quarterly parent engagement meetings.

Innovations added over the past year include the Parent University calendar on its website – parents.grps.org -   a vast source of information for parents regarding all parent engagement activities in Parent University, as well as event scheduled at each school.

“Parents, for example, can go online there to take 5- to 7-minute classes. We will be adding cooking classes this year. There is info about district-wide initiatives we want them to know about. We’ll providing text messaging notifications if they opt in. We’re always growing!” boasts Wilkins.

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