Parents who never understood the workings of public education and state government are getting schooled in a free class that is transforming their own lives while turning them into advocates for all kids.
The pervasive storyline about low-income or immigrant parents is that, working multiple jobs, they don’t have time to get involved with their children’s schooling.
But every Saturday morning and again on Tuesday nights, two dozen moms — and a couple of dads — are earnestly bucking that stereotype by diving into lessons on school and state governance through Washington’s Parent Leadership Training Institute.
In those three-hour sessions, they puzzle through the ways policy can differ from law, learn how to participate in local government and receive coaching on practical ways to advocate for all children educated in Washington public schools.
One parent-pupil, a Mexican immigrant who works the lunch line in a Mukilteo school cafeteria, is using her newfound organizing skills to create a food pantry for the dozens of untouched meals she sees thrown out every day.
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“It makes me cry,” said Azuecna Spidell, voice shaking as she described tossing 83 unopened milk cartons and 57 apples last week — per health-department regulations — when, meanwhile, there are students in her high-poverty elementary building who don’t have enough to eat.
Another mom-advocate, who had cautiously inquired about starting an after-school Spanish club for students at Silver Lake Elementary, was astonished to see 100 children sign up — many of them white.
A third trainee, whose family arrived in Washington after moving from Las Vegas, is creating an anti-bullying website for other parents, after experiencing years of frustration finding help for her own son.
All were sitting in a classroom at Everett Community College last Saturday, learning about Washington’s Basic Education Act, the difference in meaning between “equal” and “equitable,” and the ways those principles inform current discussions around the McCleary school-funding lawsuit now weighing on legislators in Olympia.
“I’m just a lunch lady,” said Spidell in halting English. “But this class is teaching me so much that I can bring back to other parents. I want to teach my community that they can be successful — as successful as their children.”
Spidell is part of the first class of parent-leaders-in-the-making through a project created by Adie Simmons, longtime Shoreline PTA member and founding director of the Office of Washington State Education Ombuds, an agency dedicated to promoting family engagement in schools.
Simmons modeled the free, 10-week course on a similar effort proved successful in Connecticut. And parents who participate can earn education credits.
Many of those who began last fall, frightened to speak in public and apologizing for broken English, are finishing with plans to approach school principals and improve their own educations.
“The change has been incredible,” Simmons said. “Many of these parents have never had the opportunity for this kind of education, and while the PTA is an important group, it does not work for everyone. Me, I was always the odd person because I am not from here, and I am not white. I am trying, through this class, to normalize participation so that it’s natural — for everyone.”
The next Parent Leadership Training Institute kicks off in March.