Detroit’s main school district launched a major new initiative this spring, offering scores of new classes that aren’t for students, but for their parents.
Held at schools and libraries across the city, parents can sign up for classes to learn to become event-planners or to launch their own home-based business. There are classes to help children with homework, to learn to style children’s hair, and to cope with grief and loss. There’s even a course on how to save extra cash by clipping coupons.
All classes are free and open to parents, caregivers and community members, but the Parent Academy program seems to be off to a slow start — a very slow start.
A Chalkbeat reporter stopped by three classes last week, selected at random, and found no students attending any of them.
That doesn’t mean all of the classes are empty. Sharlonda Buckman, who heads the district’s office of Family and Community Engagement, said that about 350 parents have either taken a class since they began in April, or signed up for one in May or June.
Programs like the Parent Academy are common across the country as districts increasingly recognize the importance of getting parents to be active in schools.
But the low turnout so far illustrates the challenges facing Detroit school leaders as they try to turn around a struggling school system by introducing new programs.
Research shows that students who get more support at home are more likely to succeed academically. And, if parents feel more connected with their child’s school, they’ll be more likely to volunteer and to recommend the school to friends and neighbors. That’s important in a city where parents can choose from dozens of district, charter and suburban school options for their children.
The main Detroit district has attempted to lure parents with things like resume-writing classes in the past. The district, under the control of an emergency manager, launched a Parent University in 2014.
But the Parent Academy, which has a stated goal of helping parents “support students academically, socially, and emotionally,” is a much more robust effort, offering more than 200 classes in more than 50 subjects between April and June, with more classes planned for the summer and for next year.
“We’re trying to build relationships with parents,” said Yolanda Eddins, a program director in the district’s Family and Community Engagement Office who teaches some of the classes. “We’re trying to get them to re-engage with the schools.”
The district is paying for the program with the help of a $3 million, three-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder). The money funds a number of parent-focused initiatives including a school home visit program that helps connect educators with their students, and a kindergarten bootcamp, which will run this summer to help prepare young children to start school.
Eddins said she averages about 10 parents per class.
Another Parent Academy instructor, Destinee Ray-Williams, a parent engagement officer for the district, said of the handful of classes she’s attended, the largest class has drawn about eight parents.
But Buckman said she expects parent interest to grow as more parents become aware of it. Parents can still sign up for spring classes, or they can show up unregistered.
“There has been almost 100 courses offered” so far, she said. “Some of them just didn’t work, and we had to cancel, the schools couldn’t do it, etc. We have to do more marketing and recruitment.”
The classes were created based on 4,000 responses to surveys that were given to parents last fall.
“We put classes out there based on what parents wanted,” Buckman said.
Buckman said she and her staff will gauge parent interest before adding more classes for the summer, and they will keep tabs on times and locations that are most popular to help increase participation.
“We have the volume and variety,” Buckman said. “We need to marry that with a more robust marketing campaign. We are really intentionally building the parent body across the district.”
A resume building workshop and classes that help parents as their children transition from one grade to the next have been popular, Eddins said.
“Parents have been very interested in the event planning certification classes,” Eddins said. “One parent started tearing up, she was so excited.”
Here’s the course catalog: