ROCKINGHAM COUNTY – Parents are finding a new way to get more involved in local schools.

Eleven parents in May completed the Parent Engagement Program, a leadership initiative headed by the Rockingham County Education Foundation. A new session is about to begin for the 2018-2019 school year.

Dawn Charaba, RCEF executive director, is excited about the success of the first year of PEP, which focuses on leadership development, public awareness and organizing for action.  The program’s goal is to improve student success by reducing barriers to learning, engaging and informing other parents, and establishing collaborative teams and networks.

“We want them to engage and be a partner in Rockingham County schools moving forward,” Charaba said.

Parents need to fill out an application, which includes detailed questions about concerns with schools or the school district, leadership qualities, and current involvement in community or schools.

“Each parent has an individualized leadership plan, and most partnered with their [child’s principal] to do an activity with them,” Charaba said. “For our pilot year, I’m surprised that many parents hung in there.  It’s 35 curriculum hours, so they’re with us for a huge chunk of time.”

The parents attend monthly PEP meetings and one school board meeting. They also tour a school on their own, and afterwards give a school grade.

“They’re not looking at performance, they’re looking at [how welcoming the school is], cleanliness… it’s just a different way to grade the schools. Some of them went above and beyond and interviewed students and did their own needs assessments,” Charaba said.

“We are just the tool that gets them the skills that they need, and they can take off and address any area in the public schools that they want to,” she said.

Kirk Smith, whose children attend Wentworth Elementary, had nothing to improve at that school.

“So the two of us are working on a citizens’ guide to the school budget,” Charaba said. “It is a lot. We’re compiling what we think the public should know, so they can understand…  I don’t understand all of [the RCS] budget.”

Moss Street Elementary parent Doneka Dillard starred in the UNC Moss Street Partnership School video, which can be seen at https://vimeo.com/262077800.

“She was instrumental in helping Moss Street families enroll in the school, and being a liaison with UNC Greensboro,” Charaba said.

She said several parent participants are now PTO leaders, and others are leading beautification efforts, coordinating websites, and more, including these projects:

Jennifer Bradley, Lincoln Elementary School: Develop tools and best practices that improve communications between families, teachers and the community. Activities include establishing a PTO Communication Committee, creating a family email group and Facebook page, and implementing Sign‐Up Genius Tool for volunteer needs.

Chrissy Griffin, Douglass Elementary School: Start an initiative called Hope Network to support trauma‐informed care to Rockingham County students. For students who have had a traumatic experience, their schools will be notified to “handle with care.”

Diana Herbin, Monroeton Elementary School: Implement and advocate for tutoring supports for parents.

Ashley Hopper, Holmes Middle School: Develop and involve a diverse group of students in an International Club as well as using her tenure as PTSO co‐president to increase communication between the school and parents through social media.

Jennifer Lester, Wentworth Elementary School: Design an online volunteer portal and email system to engage parents at the school.

Jennifer Mayes, Draper Elementary School: Develop and manage a Parent Engagement Program social media page, establishing an online community, discussion board and network of current and past participants.

Mitch Neal, Holmes Middle School: Build comment and suggestion boxes for students at Holmes and Morehead High School, designed to increase discussion and collaboration between teachers and students.

Lori Thorn, Reidsville High School: Create a brochure to highlight RHS opportunities; partner with RHS to update website; work to have school phone messages sent in Spanish for 269 families.

Layden Tripp, Draper Elementary:  Increase parent utilization and volunteerism at Rockingham County Parent Resource Centers.

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Charaba took over as director of the Rockingham County Education Foundation two years ago this October.

“The first thing I wanted to do was understand peoples’ perspectives on education,” she said.

She had spent six years with the Rockingham County Partnership for Children, where she worked with young parents. She didn’t have a lot of interaction with most of the grade levels of school.

Charaba spoke informally with about 60 county residents, then pulled together a community perception survey that brought in comments from 150 people.

“We know that students whose parents are involved have higher grades, higher test scores, decreased discipline issues,” she said, adding that she wanted to break down barriers parent involvement in areas such as communication, relationship building, and schedule availability.

RCEF then received a Z. Smith Reynolds grant to conduct a parent academy.

“I had no idea where to begin. I spent a few weeks researching, and Z. Smith Reynolds connected me with Parents for Public Schools of Pitt County, in its third year,” she said.

Charaba took Rockingham County Schools Superintendent Dr. Rodney Shotwell and Assistant Superintendent Sonja Parks to Greenville to check it out first hand.

“Sitting in that room, all of us were sold. It was such a great environment. Parents were questioning what was happening, and addressing issues and concerns them in a constructive way – which does not always happen,” Charaba said.

“One of the things we stress with parents is that we want them to be equal partners, that they should be proactive problem-solvers that are out there, so if you see an issue, you should be comfortable going and talking to your child’s teacher or the principal to figure out a solution,” she said. “We found out most of them weren’t.  [We told them] you can bring up an issue if you have a solution for it, and are willing to talk through it. So there’s a skill set we tried to build in them, both knowledge and confidence.

“And it is scary, if you’re meeting Dr. Shotwell for the first time,” Charaba said. “They met school board members, so we exposed them to people they would never have had contact with.”

She said the PEP participants, who represented 14 schools, bonded throughout the year – and at a track meet four of them had kids there so they stood around and talked.

“It’s a cross-county collaboration, and they can talk to somebody in the same situation, to call on and reach out to,” Charaba said. “It’s a little bit different than the parents at your one school.”

What surprised Charaba after the first year of PEP was the parents’ desire to learn, to dig deeper than what the program was exposing to them.

“Going from being nervous and not knowing what to say, and toward the end, doing research on their own, even combatting incorrect information on social media and correcting that and providing accurate information… it was exciting,” she said.

“I did not expect that to happen, the change in confidence and outward advocacy for public education.”

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For more information on PEP or to apply for the upcoming year, contact Dawn Charaba at dawn@helprockinghamstudents.org or 336-552-0761.

Applications are due on Friday, Aug. 31. Orientation will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 26. Meetings are held one Wednesday per month from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Rockingham Community College, on Oct. 24, Nov. 28, Dec. 12 (school tours), Jan. 23, Feb. 27, March 27, April 24, and May 8 (graduation).

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Contact Gerri Hunt at ghunt@rockinghamnow.com, (336) 349-4331, ext. 6137 and follow @HuntGerri_RCN on Twitter.

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