Eight Jacksonville residents who care about children spent 20 weeks transforming themselves into leaders.
They learned how school districts, city and state governments and their budgets work. They learned about public policy, problem solving and the media. They learned about social and economic trends. And they learned how community members can translate their concerns into action.
Friday night they graduated as the first class of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund’s Parents Who Lead program. Each of them has already begun leading, with community service projects underway.
“Parents are inherently interested in improving the lives of children and they see issues affecting our young people firsthand, but they don’t always have the skills, knowledge or relationships to know how to create change,” said Maira Martelo, the fund’s community mobilization director. “Parents Who Lead is designed to provide them those skills and relationships.”
The local program is based on the Connecticut-based National Parent Leadership Institute model that has been implemented in cities across the country. In Jacksonville, the fund partnered with Duval County Public Schools, the Jacksonville Public Library and Kids Hope Alliance.
They devised a selection process — participants could be parents of public or charter school students or infants and could be child caregivers and not parents at all — and recruited a diverse group representing different races, religions and countries of origin. Forty people applied, 21 were selected, 17 started the program and eight graduated, with an attrition rate similar to other sites, Martelo said. “We will continue to grow ... in the upcoming years. The most important part of the program is not the number of participants but the impact of their community project,” she said. The community service projects were a mesh of what participants learned in the program and their advocacy goals.
Latrice Carmichael’s project, “Mommy, Me and My IEP,” was a brochure that explained Individualized Education Programs, which are documents developed for each public school child who is eligible for special education services. She had to find her way through IEPs because of her special-needs son and became a schoolwide advocate as president of the parent-teacher group at his school.
“I’m always trying to advocate for students,” she said. When she saw a post about the program on the fund’s Facebook page, she thought to herself “that’s for me.” “Other parents have different types of situations. ... It’s always something,” Carmichael said.
But those who get involved, become educated about the system and become advocates “can open up doors to so many areas,” she said. They meet decision-making government leaders who “have that seat at the table,” she said, and maybe get a seat of their own. Whitney Touchton was referred to the program by a friend. She has three children, one of whom has special needs, but had developed a personal advocacy of reconciliation and anti-racism.
“I wanted to learn more about advocacy ... on a bigger scale,” she said.
Touchton focused her community service project on implicit racial bias training for teachers, to help them be aware of their own unconscious racial bias. She led a panel on the topic at a recent education conference in Jacksonville. With her newly gained leadership skills, she said she hopes to transform the project into an ongoing advocacy. Other Parents Who Lead projects addressed bullying, parent-teacher group fundraising and cultural diversity, among other things.