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Opinion

Column: Learning Matters: New School Smarts program looks to bridge information gap for parents

I’ve written before about the ever-present challenge of getting timely information and help to the people who need it.

Information changes; programs lose funding; people in the know move away. Whether we’re talking about parents not knowing where to turn when their children struggle in school or individuals on the brink of a slide into homelessness, there’s a lot of unmet need.

Schools can chronicle decades of programs and services — some more successful than others — to help individuals navigate their challenges.

I recall one of the first PTA convention workshops I attended in 1990 where presenters urged us to focus more on the needs of parents than those of the organization, and more on providing valuable information than racking up attendance or raising funds.

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They said the attendees like us — mostly parents who could afford time away from families or work to attend a two-day conference out of town — that many parents didn’t enjoy such luxury.

They cautioned us to understand that absence from a school meeting didn’t necessarily equate to a lack of parental interest in a child’s education or welfare.

Panel members told us about PTAs that were translating their newsletters for non-English-speaking parents — a novel idea at a time when PTAs didn’t have regular access to the district translation services that would become available later. Our PTAs first newsletter after that convention was translated and handwritten by a parent volunteer.

A decade or so later, a local PTA parent initiated a different approach to parent education.

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As a parent of a child who’d struggled with learning differences, Lynn Gambino understood the challenges parents face when their children have trouble learning at the speed of their peers.

With the support of the PTA, she worked with the district to create and place informational materials on learning differences and resources in school offices to be given to any parent who expressed a need.

Gambino and the PTA Learning Differences Committee made sure administrators and school clerks knew about the materials, and committee members ensured the offices were kept supplied with the information. But eventually her son graduated, school clerks took new assignments, materials disappeared and the Learning Differences project fizzled out.

Now, with the help of the internet and social media, schools and organizations have a much easier time sharing and updating important information, and some do a great job.

But they’re finding that information alone is not enough. Big gaps remain between services offered and public awareness of them. Many individuals and families face challenges without knowledge of the benefits available in the community, often without connection to people who can share the information.

California State PTA is again trying to bridge the information gap with School Smarts, “a parent engagement program designed to help you better understand the big picture of how the education system works and to feel empowered to help your child and school succeed,” according to the state PTA website, capta.org.

Initiated in 2010 in four districts, School Smarts has expanded to 130 schools in 29 districts, with pilots currently underway in four Glendale elementary schools.

Monna Johnson, president of Glendale Council’s PTA, who helped spearhead Glendale Unified’s participation, expressed her excitement about the program’s prospects for parent engagement in an email.

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“Research shows that students that have parents or guardians who are engaged do better at school,” she wrote.

A former participant in the program put it another way, as quoted on the PTA’s website: “Parents appreciated meeting school leaders and their school principal…They felt more secure in their relationships with school personnel, and gained confidence in asking questions.”

Lynn Miyamoto, former Glendale PTA Council president and current California State PTA vice president for parent engagement, also shared her delight that Glendale will be part of the School Smarts network.

She has seen benefits beyond family engagement in districts participating in School Smarts.

“It was not only a program that enhanced family engagement, but it allowed for personal development and growth” among both parents and school employees, she wrote in an email.

I look forward to watching what happens as School Smarts works to create an environment in which people feel engaged and comfortable asking for help.

JOYLENE WAGNER is a past member of the Glendale Unified school board, from 2005 to 2013, and currently serves on the boards of Glendale Educational Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. Email her at jkate4400@aol.com.


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