School Smarts: ‘Everyone Belongs’ in Alameda USD

“I learned so much from the School Smarts program: I learned how the Alameda Unified School District school system works, how to get information when needed, how to invest in my child and school and how to prepare my child for college — I have all the answers I needed to know.”

Thang Do’s wonderful words are wonderfully typical of the family-engagement efforts in Alameda USD. As a recent graduate of an all-Vietnamese School Smarts Family Engagement Program, Do and other participants represent the diverse face of family engagement in the school district, and the entire state: While all may have different backgrounds, cultures and languages, all share the same passionate commitment to the success of their child, school and community.

That passion is shared by Alameda USD itself. Instead of a one-and-done, check-off-the-box effort at engaging diverse family members, the district has made diversity and inclusion hallmarks of its overall mission. The district was one of the very first to participate in – and understand the value of — the School Smarts Parent Engagement Program, and now the program, like the district’s commitment to diversity, is woven into the educational community’s overall culture of “Everyone Belongs Here.”

Alameda County has long been a diverse region, and today is no different: 44 percent of resident speak a language other than English at home, and 34 percent of residents are foreign-born. Instead of viewing such demographics as challenges, Alameda USD works to build bridges for all families to become involved in their children’s success.

“Our work is purposely built around stages of immigrant involvement,” said Claudia Medina, Alameda USD School Smarts coordinator. “We have made an intentional effort to reach out and include our immigrant and English-learner communities in ways that can empower their educational journey.”

Medina and Superintendent Sean McPhetridge helped spearhead School Smarts’ establishment in the district five years ago.

“I said, ‘I won’t be happy until I see School Smarts in all our elementary schools!’” said McPhetridge, who first saw the program when he was Alameda USD assistant superintendent. He noted that, five years in and now in 10 elementary schools, School Smarts has developed a new generation of diverse parents who, among other accomplishments, have helped the district realize its goal of greater parent input in Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) committees.

“School Smarts and other efforts have all helped support our work to protect and uplift all the students and families we serve in a safe, supportive and inclusive learning environments that are committed to the Alameda belief that ‘Everyone Belongs Here,’” he said.

“Our work has helped families to feel safe and included in our schools; knowledgeable and confident to show up in school; strong and informed to join leadership committees; and now, more recently, School Smarts graduates have joined our newly formed ALCANCE Latino Achievement Roundtable to improve the academic outcomes of our Latino students,” added Medina. “We are positioning ourselves to not only enrich, but also to impact the academic and social/emotional outcomes of our community.”

Noor Hezam is one of the Alameda USD School Smarts facilitators who helps make all parents and families feel welcome, not just in the School Smarts classes, but in the larger community. As a longtime educator originally from Yemen as well as a Ruby Bridges Elementary School English Language Development instructor and a community/faith volunteer, she helps Arabic-speaking families engage fully in their new country. From making School Smarts classes available in easy-to-access community centers for parents who can’t drive to creating a chatting app to connect her School Smarts parent-graduates, Hezam reflects the district’s above-and-beyond commitment to inclusion.

“Most of my School Smarts parents from two to three years ago were from Yemen, but now they are from Egypt, Tunisia and more!” she said. “Our parents thank me for telling them about our school system, especially about how we should already start preparing children for college. Our classes are joyful and exciting and we all cheer at the graduations. We are seeing more parents coming into the school and getting engaged – they now feel comfortable getting involved in field trips, greeting others on campus and more.

“All our work is about building relationships!” she summed up.

Another recent graduate – this time, of an all-Chinese class — summed up Alameda USD’s School Smarts inclusion efforts.

“Most of us are newcomers and non-English speakers,” said a participant named Wentao. “We understand that education is very important for every family and how it will help our dreams come true. As newcomers we need help to understand the educational plan from kindergarten to college in the United States. We have a duty to support our school and our communities to become better, safer and healthier. School Smarts gave us confidence in joining the residents of Alameda.”

Indeed, everyone belongs in Alameda USD – and School Smarts!