At daylong conference in Everett this weekend, participants discussed how best to improve and increase parents' role in schools.

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Nearly 50 years ago, the federal government’s main education law began requiring schools to give low-income parents a voice in their children’s schools.  Then in 1981, that language was repealed under President Ronald Reagan.

Anne Henderson, who has spent her career advocating for more and better parent involvement in schools, remembers watching this unfold and feeling confused and frustrated by it.

She told that story to a room packed with nearly 200 teachers, parents and education advocates who spent last Saturday at the first parent conference hosted by the relatively new Washington State Family and Community Engagement Trust.

Henderson said she went to lawmakers and asked why they had written parents out. They said there was no evidence that family engagement improves education, so parents should just stay out of the way and let teachers do their jobs.

She said she followed up by asking if those lawmakers thought being involved in their children’s education was important. The lawmakers responded, “Oh, come on, you know what we mean, we’re talking about ‘those parents,'” she told conference participants.  There was an audible groan in the room.

Based on other speakers’ presentations and sessions, it was clear that “those parents” were the main audience and focus of Saturday’s daylong conference. Along with Henderson, one of the main speakers was University of Washington Assistant Professor Ann Ishimaru, who discussed going from “best” practices to “next” practices, such as not just inviting parents to participate in school meetings, but to help lead them.

At the end of the conference, Adie Simmons, executive director of the Trust, said: “When we started planning this conference we wanted to convene all the experts, but at the same time, people on the ground who are doing this work – educators, nonprofits who work with parents, and parents themselves who can speak about their vision for family engagement and their particular experiences.

“I think we have fulfilled that dream of bringing everyone together under one room for one day to have those courageous conversations about equity and family engagement… we believe this is going to be one of many in the future.”

Here are a few reactions to the conference from its participants:

Parents Marilu Garcia (far right) and Veronica Martinez (second from left), of Everett Public Schools, said they were surprised by how many people are interested in helping their children be successful. “It’s a very good opportunity for us to have a relationship and interaction with the culture that we’re in and to let them know what are our roots and that we are not people who aren’t interested in education for our children,” Garcia said.

Howard Jenkins, an advisory board member of Destiny Charter Middle School, said he was glad to hear that it’s a universal concern to make curriculum more culturally relevant and inclusive. “We need to relate better to families of color,” he said.

Lori Buher, a counselor in La Conner Schools, said what she found inspiring about the conference was the “reminder to put the parents in leadership roles… instead of teachers telling parents what to do.”

Jackie Peters, a teacher at Penny Creek Elementary in Everett, said, “What I liked is the idea of taking best practices to what they call next practices,” and gave the example of the Natural Leaders Program, a parent program in nine King and Snohomish county school districts. “It’s not just doing the traditional things, but taking it that step further and really reaching out to families in their own language and bringing in families that are uncomfortable.”


Yuri Jenson is a manager for the Natural Leaders Program.  Jenson said she found it surprising that almost all the organizations that presented at the conference were new to her and many of the parents who came with her. “I didn’t know we had all these resources in the community,” she said. “I had my daughter in Head Start, and I didn’t know about programs they had for parents to become leaders in their community.”