School Smarts: ‘A Lifetime of Knowledge’

wendysmithers_speech_SMALLWendy Smithers (at right in scarf) is a School Smarts Parent Engagement Program facilitator. She was honored to share her personal and professional experiences at a recent California Association of Bilingual Education convention.

How many of you are teachers? Paraprofessionals? Parents? Today I would like to share with you my experiences as a facilitator of the School Smarts Parent Engagement Program and its connection to the arts. A recent PTA newsletter clearly stated that family engagement is the number-one predictor of student success.

Family engagement has a big impact on improving student outcomes and building connections between the home and school. As a facilitator of School Smarts I can share with you the many success stories of parent involvement and student achievement.

Motivation and Inspiration

I have facilitated School Smarts several times in South San Francisco and Millbrae. Each time, my heart sings with motivation and inspiration from the parents. It’s about making the connections with the parents from school to home and back. Just like in your classroom, you see the children’s smiling faces, hands eagerly raised, I have experienced the same with parents. They nod, smile, talk amongst themselves. At the end of each session, they hug you and thank you for the new information learned. And they laugh! You know you are making a difference when you connect with them and they respond back so eagerly.

School Smarts has seven sessions and one wonderful graduation. Session One begins with sharing family values, and education is always one value that comes up as most important to the parents. Because it’s an important value, we talk about how to set up your home for homework and how important it is to turn off the screen time and video games Monday through Thursday. And because they value education, the parents try it and follow through.

The results are astonishing! By the second session, about 99 percent of the parents are onboard with turning off screen time and reorganizing homework time! Then I ask them to be sure to look in their child’s backpack every night. They think this is so funny – until the next week, when they share that they did look in the backpacks and they discovered incomplete homework and notes from the teacher and school. We now have empowered parents! They are onboard to make changes and connect to school.

schoolsmarts_hand_wendyAs a facilitator, I observe as parents discover and grow within each of the seven sessions. Communication skills become stronger. They begin to talk more with each other, ask questions – and they realize the teacher is available to talk with them. They realize the door to the classroom is open to them. They become motivated to communicate with the teachers. They share their experiences:

  • “Teacher, my son really loved his homework!” or
  • “Teacher, can you please help my child with the word problems?” or
  • “Teacher, I have set up a homework system at home!”

Instead of ignoring the problem, or not talking to the teacher, parents are confident to ask for help.

As you probably know, in many Latin countries, the parents never enter the school. They walk their child to school, but never enter. They hang out at the front of the school. You probably see this at your school. The parents hang out at the entrance, but are unaware they can go into the classroom. School Smarts builds their confidence to not only visit the classroom, but also to talk, question and share with the teacher. Now the seeds of the home-school connection have been planted and are growing.

I have always found it is important to really know your audience. Do they understand the Core standards? Can they navigate and interpret the new standards-based report card? Do they have good questions to ask at conference time? Do they understand the educational system in California? These are questions I ask myself as I prepare for each session. As a facilitator, I want to teach new concepts that the parents need to know and empower them with new knowledge.

Just like your students, parents work best in small groups where they can share and build communications skills. Having understood the Core standards, many parents now form well-though-out conference questions:

  • “In what areas is my child proficient or exemplary?”
  • “What can I do at home to increase his mastery of standards?”
  • Or sharing with the teacher the homework routines set up at home.

Parents are proud – and knowledgeable. It is exhilarating to see parents becoming empowered and participating in their child’s education. School Smarts gives them these skills.

The Power of Art

Art is also a critical component in School Smarts. It is with the art projects that they realize how important art is for their children. Art is a tool which allows all children to show what they know — to model high levels of comprehension in all subjects. You have seen the difference with your ESL students when they can illustrate the beginning, middle or end of a story. They can demonstrate their comprehension of stories read, the details, word meaning, sequencing, main idea with details, character description, cause/effect, dialogue: all through art, at any grade level. It is with art that all students can demonstrate what they know as they learn English. And art is a cross-cultural medium – there are no language barriers. When the students create projects at home, the whole family participates. We all benefit from the diversity and cultural impact shown in the art.

schoolsmarts_art_wendyIt is through the power of art that meaning and comprehension shine. Cultural ties are revealed through art. Family art projects form the home-school connection. At School Smarts, the parents participate in an art project almost every session. We celebrate the parents’ art by hanging it up in the school cafeteria or halls. Children delight and are proud of their parents’ art – they beam with pride:

  • “My mom and dad go to school!”
  • “My mom made this of me!”
  • “My dad volunteers in school!”

And because their parents attend School Smarts, the children find themselves improving more in class as well: improving in grades and subject matter. Education is valued. Children excel. Family engagement is a predictor of student success.

Community is built through art, and with it the development of stronger communication skills. I once asked a kindergarten parent how will she make sure her kindergarten student masters the Core standard of identifying geometric shapes. She thought about it and answered, “I will point out the shapes of street signs as we walk to school.” Brilliant! Talking to her child and observing the environment; making connections to school curriculum. She will take control and be sure her child masters this standard. She has knowledge of these core standards at each grade level and understands how the school and home work together to build success.

The Home Benefits, the School Benefits, the Community Benefits

wendy2Parents grow and find themselves, not just good communicators, but now they are leaders in the school community and advocates for education at their school sites. Parents are empowered to not just join PTA, but to attend meetings and participate! They join other committees and volunteer in school. As leaders, they understand how important it is to be involved in education. We tell them this from kindergarten through 12th grade! And it’s not IF you go to college – it’s WHEN YOU GO. Parents speak at school-board meetings. Parents also apply this new knowledge and find themselves advancing in their jobs or going back to school. Many parents have been inspired to get their GED or take courses in English – even going to college and graduating! New life goals are made and a future for them and their children moves forward.

At the end of the Seventh Session, we ask parents to make a goal that they can fulfill and hopefully demonstrates leadership and advocacy in the school community. Many parents join PTA! And they attend meetings! They begin to participate and find their voices. Other parents promise to read to their child every night. Families together: Friday pizza night with families in their pajamas and on the couch reading together with no TV!

They also set goals to always check their backpacks every day, too! What was so funny in the beginning has become a way of life! I love it. Setting goals gives them a reason to participate and become involved with their child’s education.

Many parents become inspired to share their career with the school. One graduate – a dentist – gave dental-hygiene education to each kindergarten through fifth grade class at one school. This was an incredible give-back to the community. The kids loved his big model of teeth that demonstrated how to properly brush their teeth! Other parents got fingerprint clearance and TB-tested to become legal volunteers at school. At one school, the PTA was losing its charter – the parents’ goal was to increase membership. They organized themselves to work in partners and signed up for different times of the school day to meet and talk with parents to join PTA. Membership increased to 75 parents! And the graduates of School Smarts were elected to the executive board! At another school recently renovated, parents worked with the art teacher and classrooms to construct tile murals for the new hallways! Gardens and raised beds appear as parents work with teachers and students to build stronger school community. As we say, “Si se puede – it can be done!”

Graduation is another emotional, momentous event. In some school graduations, mortarboards are purchased, parents walk down a red paper carpet to the stage with “Pomp and Circumstance” playing in the background. For many, this is their first graduation. Tears are in their eyes. Mine, too. The children sit silently, in awe of their parents. They too will graduate. Family pride – valuing education – building a future.

Because of School Smarts, parents are moving forward. Families are moving into the future with educational goals. Parents communicate well, demonstrate leadership and advocacy for all kids in education. Parents become leaders and families achieve. The rewards are a lifetime of skills and knowledge. They have started a change at home that will continue after their children are grown.

The home benefits, the school benefits, the community benefits – across all cultures and languages. School Smarts is a program which gives our parents and their children a future. It builds home-school connections through art, communication, leadership and advocacy. Thank you!

Do you have a family-engagement success story to share? Email