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Posted September 14, 2011

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Schools Welcoming More Parents

Lowell PTA President Monica Apodaca assembles packets to be distributed to classrooms.

Families welcome.

That’s the message repeated by family engagement specialists, who have been working quietly throughout Albuquerque Public Schools for the past three years to help open schools and make them more family-friendly. Specialists greet families when they drop off students in the morning, recruit and organize parent volunteers and offer suggestions on how schools can build relationships with their parents.

Lowell parent Amber Hoffmann shelves books as a volunteer in the school library.

This is just one of many examples of schools building relationships with parents. What works at your child’s school? If you’d like to share an idea, please contact Bernadette Cordoba-Martinez, APS instructional manager, at cordoba_a@aps.edu.

As one of many ways that schools engage parents, the specialists focus strictly on parent programs and are paid through the Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant. The four-year grant has provided more than $9 million that has paid for a variety of initiatives, particularly at schools serving primarily low-income families. It is in its final year, and district officials hope it can be renewed.

Under the grant, a team of eight specialists work in one “cluster,” or feeder system of schools for just one year, helping parents organize and eventually maintain their own volunteer programs. Having previously worked in the schools serving Highland, West Mesa and Rio Grande high schools, the team of eight specialists is now working with those feeding into Albuquerque High.

Maria Hines, APS’ family liaison supervisor, said families sometimes do not feel comfortable at schools, so the specialists help break down walls between schools and parents. She said that, traditionally, some parents have seen their role as separate from the school’s; they drop their kids off, see them at the end of the day and have little or no contact with anyone inside the school. In order to work, both parents and school administration have to buy in to the volunteer program and recognize the value of having a strong parent presence.

“Sometimes principals have trouble letting parents take over,” Hines said. “It’s important that parents are there to advocate for each other and help each other.” She said successful, stronger parent programs are now in place.

Specialists begin by walking through and exploring every aspect of how a school runs and where parents might help. They work with principals on an evaluation of the school’s situation and creating an action plan. Then, they start recruiting volunteers, sometimes even calling parents at home. Fifty volunteers were recruited at a recent open house at Lowell Elementary.

“It’s daunting to get parents together,” said Lowell PTA President Maria Apodaca. “(Specialists) have been a huge help. They’re making a difference with their ideas and resources.”

Apodaca was new to the school last year, and it didn’t have a well-established PTA. Even though she took over and parents raised $4,000, she was happy to have the district specialists step in. Lowell has just opened a parent resource center, with computers donated by the Department of Energy. Specialists Margaret Flores and Teresa Carson are setting up a space where parents are learning how the school runs, so they become more engaged.

“If parents have a job, they’re happy to help,” said Flores, who has 18 years of experience working with families in schools.

“Parents want to get involved but they don’t always know how,” Carson added.

The specialists are not the same thing as family liaisons, who many schools hire as educational assistants and assign to work with families. Hines said schools are typically able to assign liaisons “maybe four hours a week” to work with parents rather than full-time. Because of recent budget cuts, many have been permanently reassigned to the classroom, leaving a void in parent relations.

“Now, we need parents to fill in the gaps” left by budget cuts, Flores said.

At Lowell—and many other schools—parents are volunteering in the library, watching the grounds and bringing their peers on board. Title I funds are paying for APS’ required background checks for volunteers. Parents are becoming the center of building community.

“Everything must be a grassroots effort,” Hines said.

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