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Living and connecting in a community

If you happened to be walking by the Arts Council Theatre in Winston-Salem last Thursday, you would not have been at fault for thinking a pep rally was happening inside or that a marching band was having a mid-day practice.

For almost two hours, the theatre was filled with the sound of music, boom whackers, and drummers. It was the district’s Parent Power event to kick off the start of the school year, and it actually was a pep rally — a rally to encourage parents to be more directly involved in their children’s education and reaffirm a community commitment to support them in that goal.

Sharon Frazier, parent involvement program manager for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Public Schools speaking at the Parent Power event. (Photo credit: Todd Brantley/EducationNC)
Sharon Frazier, parent involvement program manager for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Public Schools speaking at the Parent Power event. (Photo credit: Todd Brantley/EducationNC)

The “All In: Educating our children together” event was full of songs, signs, and inspirational videos. In addition to the festivities, the parents and community leaders in attendance heard from author and education advocate Jamie Vollmer.

Vollmer had spoken to the entire staff of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools earlier in the day, an estimated crowd of 5,000 at the city’s Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

At the Parent Power event, Vollmer spoke about his trajectory from a hard-nosed, bottom-line business leader to passionate public education advocate.

Vollmer’s message to the parents at the event was that they were the greatest asset for their children’s success.

“What I know for sure is that every tiny bit of research shows the most important variable for student success is parental involvement,” Vollmer said.

According to Vollmer, parental involvement even outweighs the positive and negative influences of a child’s socio-economic status.

“You can have [a student] coming from a situation that is stressed in almost every way, but if that parent has engaged in a partnership with the teachers, that student is much, much, much more likely to succeed,” Vollmer told the parents.

Vollmer was quick to acknowledge that the burden of a student’s success did not rest solely on parents.

“It’s not surprising that you as engaged parents, who are really committed to making sure your kid succeeds, can feel like you are on an island pushing a rock up a hill,” Vollmer said. “Because the system wasn’t designed for all kids.”

But Vollmer sees a shift to a more moralistic view of an education system that works for all children. He gave the example of two hypothetical children of equal intelligence but who come from different backgrounds and with different levels of parental engagement.

“Some kids take longer to learn than others,” Vollmer said. “We all know that, and yet we put them in a race … and they come to school and there is an imaginary starting line … and that first bell rings … they are off. They have to jump from pre-K across 14 hurdles until they walk across the stage and get that diploma. And you can see that the whole field is littered with kids who couldn’t do it in the right amount of time, exactly the way they were asked to.”

According to Vollmer, the only answer is an overhaul of our system of public education.

“For the first time, the moral thing to do and the practical thing to do are the same thing,” Vollmer said.

Vollmer closed by telling the parents to talk to their neighbors, friends, and family about the importance of helping all children succeed, to convince them of the importance of public education, for their own well being and prosperity. Vollmer pointed out that in communities with rising student achievement, there is a corresponding drop in crime and an increase in property values and tax revenue.

Jamie Vollmer at Parent Power. (Photo credit: Todd Brantley/EducationNC)
Jamie Vollmer at Parent Power. (Photo credit: Todd Brantley/EducationNC)

One of the event partners was Great Expectations, a new multi-year initiative of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust that works to align community participation and resources to ensure all children in Forsyth County are meeting developmental milestones in the first five years of life and enter Kindergarten ready for school and for the learning that will follow.

One of the initiative’s key programs, Forsyth Family Voices, is an effort to involve more parents of young children in the discussion of how to improve the delivery of child and family services in the county.

According to Great Expectations Director Khari Garvin, a deeper and broader engagement with parents and families is a core tenant of the initiative and at the heart of the Forsyth Family Voices work.

Garvin says the unique focus of the program provides parents and families an opportunity “…to share their perspectives and opinions about the services that they receive directly with the programs and agencies who provide those services.”

“We are literally beginning to shift the culture of public and nonprofit service providers to begin engaging families in this way,” Garvin said. “The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Public Schools is one of the lead agencies participating in the first cohort experience of Forsyth Family Voices. We supported the Vollmer event because … we share the philosophy and vision that neither schools, nor other entities providing a service to children and families, can do it alone.”

Events like Parent Power provide a way to connect with families directly and start to shift perceptions about a parent’s proactive role in a child’s education.

“The historical culture of schools has generally not been one where parents have been invited to be active partners in this way; so hearing this message is one way of informing parents of their rights and responsibilities, and empowering them to exercise those rights and responsibilities,” Garvin said.

Garvin notes that it is important to remind parents that a child’s education continues beyond the time in the classroom.

“Learning and development happens in every minute of every hour of every day,” Garvin said.

According to Garvin, empowering parents to be more involved in their child’s education has the effect of: “Extending the benefits of education and reinforcing new learning beyond the confines of the classroom; holding schools accountable to be attentive and committed to the needs of each student; and signaling to students in a powerful way the true importance of education.”

Community panel at the Parent Power event in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Community panel at the Parent Power event in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Photo credit: Todd Brantley/EducationNC)

The master of ceremonies for the event was Sharon Frazier, the school district’s parent involvement program manager. Frazier, who started the Parent Power events, has been working in the district for seven years as a parent advocate.

“I am there for parents, and families, for those non-custodial parents, those relatives as parents, who are trying to help children navigate the school system, to be successful,” Frazier said. “If there are kids who don’t have that strong support, then the schools know they can call me and I can make the connection to one of our community entities, where we are going to find that support.”

Frazier started Parent Power to help parents be informed on a broad set of issues that may affect their child’s education. Past events have focused on understanding Common Core, supporting exceptional children, and assisting parents of high-school students in applying for financial aid.

“[Parent Power] is a way to make sure that parents have information and knowledge about how to work with the school system, so that their kids are successful,” Frazier said. “This was a rally format, but it’s usually a mini-conference format where parents can choose from five-to-six topics.”

For Frazier, the Vollmer visit was a spring board for parents, an enthusiastic start to a new school year. It was also a chance for the parents in attendance to see and meet representatives from local nonprofits, faith communities, and businesses.

“I wanted parents to see the faces of other people who care,” Frazier said.

Frazier likes to say that parent involvement and community engagement is the key ingredient to the recipe for student success.

“Without the parent and community engagement piece, it’s like leaving the baking powder out of a cake,” said Frazier. “It falls. It won’t rise.”

For Frazier, it is part of living and connecting in a community. And events like Parent Power, and speakers like Vollmer, are ways to encourage parents and educate community members.

Building blocks of student success. (Photo credit: Todd Brantley/EducationNC)
Todd Brantley

Todd Brantley is the senior director of public affairs at The Rural Center. He formerly served as director of policy and research at EducationNC.

He grew up in Randolph County where he attended Farmer Elementary School, Randleman Middle School, and Randleman High School. Todd attended Randolph Community College before graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1995. He received a master’s in theological studies from Duke Divinity School in 2002 and a master’s from the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2009.

Prior to his work at The Rural Center and EducationNC, Todd also worked as the associate communications director at MDC providing strategic communications support for several programs, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Partners for Postsecondary Success and the Developmental Education Initiative. Todd was part of the writing and research team that produced the 2010 and 2011 State of the South reports. While a graduate student, he interned at The Story with Dick Gordon and was the editor of The Fountain, the alumni magazine for the Graduate School at UNC-Chapel Hill.

He was part of the research and writing team that received the Governmental Research Association’s 2014 Most Distinguished Research Award for a report on the use of telepsychiatry in rural areas. He was a co-author of How the Triangle Gives Back, a 2008 report that examined local philanthropic and charitable giving in the Research Triangle region. His writing and research has appeared in the Daily Yonder; Insight, a publication of the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research; and NC DataNet, a publication of The Program on Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill.

A native of North Carolina, Todd currently splits his time between Raleigh and Pikeville, where he helps maintain his wife’s family’s farm. He says, “As a product of this state’s systems of public education, from secondary, to the community college system, to our public postsecondary system, I have seen firsthand how important these institutions are for the social and economic wellbeing of this state and its citizens. Regardless of whether you are a new resident or a native, a parent or not, we all benefit from the fruits of our current system of public learning, and the hard work and foresight of those who came before us who understood that, regardless of political affiliation, North Carolina needed to be a national leader in access to quality education for everyone.”