This month, The Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) had the opportunity to speak with Bridget Murphy and Tami Love from the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) about its Parent Mentor Program. This nationally recognized program is a wonderful example of how one community-based organization took a grassroots approach to embed itself within Chicago Public Schools, and the state of Illinois, to improve student outcomes. This interview highlights many of the challenges LSNA faced during the beginning stages of their organization, as well as, strategies on how to strengthen parent voice and improve outcomes.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Parent Mentor Program Reach
The Logan Square Neighborhood Association has trained community-based organizations on the Parent Mentor Program in seven states (Carbondale and Denver, Colorado; Detroit, MI; Pittsburgh, PA; Seattle, WA; Milwaukee, WI; and Charleston WV.) There are also five sites located in Arkansas.
The Parent Engagement Institute (PEI) at LSNA, together with Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), is partnered with 14 community organizations throughout Illinois. PEI builds the capacity of partner organizations to implement the Parent Mentor Program within their own communities/schools and cultivates a powerful network of Parent Mentor staff and leaders who drive this work.
As of now, the Parent Mentor Program has scaled to 72 schools in Illinois; nine of which are run by LSNA.
From a Parent’s Perspective: What problems was the Logan Square Neighborhood Association trying to solve when the Parent Mentor Program was first developed?
By design, in 1994-95, there were strict rules about who could enter school facilities. Every day, parents would line up outside to drop off/pick up their children wondering what was happening inside the school walls. Knowing that schools often needed volunteers, one day I went inside the school to inquire about opportunities and was immediately shut down by the front receptionist. I believe her exact words were, “you can’t just walk up in here or any school. Who are you? If you want to volunteer, you need to first go downtown/to the district.” While I did not appreciate the tone in her response, I couldn’t help but wonder what other parent’s experiences were as a dual-language community, with Spanish as the prominent language. While the front receptionist saw parents as potential problems, Nancy Aardema, Executive Director of LSNA and Sally Acker, principal of Funston Elementary saw them as untapped resources who could help build the school’s capacity.
From there, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, distributed flyers to the community about a new program they were creating to help teachers in the classroom. While parents did not know what the program would entail, they saw this as an opportunity to gain access to the school and wanted to learn more.
What is the Parent Mentor Program Model and how does it work?
The Parent Mentor Program is a parent engagement model that builds meaningful and lasting relationships between students, teachers, and parents. Listed below is how it works:
1. Community organizations partner with local schools to recruit and train 8-20 parents per school to assist teachers two hours every day.
2. Parents are assigned to a classroom (not their own child’s) where they are mentored by a teacher and work one-on-one and in small groups with children. After reaching 100 volunteer hours, parent mentors receive a small stipend.
3. Led by community organizations, one day per week, parent mentors receive extra training around academic instruction, professional development, community engagement and leadership skills.
What were some of the initial challenges and how were they overcome?
The mutual lack of trust between school staff and parents was one of the biggest obstacles the program had to overcome. Teachers were concerned about security issues, they were untrusting of parents, didn’t want to be observed and thought parents were not smart enough to assist in the classroom. Unfortunately, this information got back to the parents and made them feel intimidated to work alongside teachers and lowered their confidence.
In response to this, LSNA provided a weeklong training to the parents to help them identify personal goals and as a way to overcome their insecurities prior to entering the classroom. They asked questions such as, “what do you want for yourself”, “what do you want your life to look like when the kids to go college”, “what does an ideal school look like?” and “do you know what the curriculum is trying to accomplish”? Prior to this training, these are questions that many parents had never considered. This training was an opportunity to build camaraderie with other parents and share goals; everyone held each other accountable for completing them because they felt invested in one another. Many parents felt like they finally had a support system and a “partner” to help them navigate any challenges they may need to overcome. While this training boosted confidence, it also proved to be a crucial support system when the program was first launched. The first three months of the Parent Mentor Program were difficult; relationships between teachers and the parent volunteers were very tense, in fact, many parents cried. However, because of the strong relationships parents and LSNA built with one another, we were able to encourage each other and keep going.
Support from the principal was also key. Every time Principal Acker saw a parent, she would pat them on the shoulder and say “I’m glad you’re here” and “I’m looking forward to working side by side with you”. She was also the one that had to have difficult conversations with teachers about the program. After sensing the tension in the classrooms, principal Acker organized a Meet and Greet. This was an opportunity for teachers to get to know the parents and to clarify roles and expectations. For example, the parent volunteers were to do more than bulletin boards, grade papers, etc. For them, this was to feel like an employment opportunity where they can further develop their skills. In return, teachers received additional support and were now able to give students more one-on-one time.
At the start of the program, there were four teachers and eight parents. Before the end of the year, tensions had eased and the program was growing to a point where every teacher was screaming “where are my parents?” and actually had to be waitlisted. Teachers eventually became the biggest advocates of the program. If you were to ask anyone who has participated in the program, they will tell you that this is a necessity of public education. We are not just a one-off program, but we are embedded in the school culture.
What were some of the expected and unexpected outcomes?
While we hoped that parents would become more involved in their child’s education, one unexpected outcome was that parent mentors formed family-like bonds, discovered talents for education, and dedicated themselves fully as school and community leaders. They were learning how far behind a student can become when they miss school, how to build and run a full-service community school, school, hiring protocols, immigrant rights, tenant rights, and more. Once parents had this information, they wanted to keep bringing more parents into the school community and many went on to further their own education and/or employment goals. Some parent mentor graduates became teachers through LSNA’s Grow Your Own Teachers program and now have parent mentors in their classrooms.
Looking back over 22 years, outcomes include:
How is the Parent Mentor Program funded?
In 2005, the South West Organizing Project (SWOP) realized the potential of the program. SWOP participated in LSNA parent mentor trainings and then went on to implement the program throughout their neighborhood schools in 2011, by partnering with other organizations such as the IL Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. We were also able to secure a one million dollar line item in the IL state budget. With that money, we created an RFP and invited other organizations to apply as sub-grantees. We then partnered with them and trained them. In addition, we lead our own fundraising campaigns and receive financial support from schools (on average 5K), private foundations, corporations, and grassroots.
What advice do you have for those who would like to implement this model within their schools or districts? Are there any resources you can share?
The first things organizations and schools need to do is understand why they want to partner with one another. They also need to have conversations with the different stake holders to learn what family engagement means to them and how they hope each party will benefit.
We have created a tool to analyze one’s readiness level to see if the Parent Mentor Program is a good fit for them. Through our Parent Engagement Institute we provide training and technical assistance to schools and community organizations throughout the country.
If you have any questions about this program or if you’d like additional information, please contact Bridget Murphy (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Tami Love email@example.com or visit http://www.lsna.net/index.html.