May 2, 2014 09:30

Studies show that parent involvement is directly tied to student achievement.

For the Lafayette Parish School System, parent involvement is an important component of Superintendent Pat Cooper's Turnaround Plan, but for the most part has been largely an afterthought in recent years. That void, however, prompted a group of parents led by Erin Ryan and Heather Blanchard to do something about it.

Photo by Robin May  
Parents Empowered's Heather Blanchard with daughters (left to right) Celeste, Audrey and Lillian, all of whom attend Woodvale Elementary  

"We realized there was a deficiency in our school system, and that parents didn't necessarily know what was going on, especially at the school board level where big decisions are being made and parents were just not realizing that that's my voice," says Ryan, the mother of a 6-year-old at J. Wallace James Elementary.  

To fill the void, Ryan and Blanchard, along with a small group of LPSS parents, came together last year and created Parents Empowered, which operates as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, meaning it is an independent entity from the school system. The mission: create an organizational structure to aid parents in assisting the school system with its needs, as well as implement after-school programs in all schools, which will increase the on-campus presence of parents.

"Charter and private schools have done a really good job in being engaged, but typically our public schools don't have that same engagement," says Blanchard, who has three daughters at Woodvale Elementary. "So I ask: Do you feel your child is getting as good an education as a private school? Yes. I just feel less involved. We have to create an environment where it's easy for parents to get involved. The easier we make it, the easier it is for them to get involved."

For LPSS, there is no official system-wide Parent Teacher Organization or Parent Teacher Council, says Ryan, and though parent groups do exist at a number of individual schools throughout the district, there has been no unified organization tying them all together.

According to system-wide data, students at the schools with parent organizations, compared to those without, are the schools scoring higher marks on the state's A-F graded accountability system.

For now, the focus, according to Blanchard, will be twofold - with one effort geared toward the development of on-campus after-school programs and the other on creating an organizational structure to aid in the increased involvement of parents in district issues.

"My worry is that we'll get too many volunteers before we get that structure in place. We need to get a structure in place before we start recruiting volunteers so we can really utilize them," says Blanchard, adding that based on her experience in the nonprofit sector - she heads the Acadiana branch of Komen for the Cure - the success of an event or fundraiser, both of which rely heavily on the efforts of volunteers, is always tied to organization. "We also want to help bring after-school care to all the schools, and possibly bring in the YMCA to help maintain it on a sliding-scale fee," she says. "If we can accomplish this, it will keep kids at school longer, and it will get the parents at the school, which is the first step in getting them more involved."

To spread the word of the group's existence and its mission, and to start getting parents informed, Blanchard and Ryan created a Facebook page called "Parents Empowered - A United Voice for Education."

"We're laying the groundwork now," says Ryan. "We're also looking at grant opportunities and getting funding to help develop this. Our thinking is that the school system has gotten a lot of attention lately, some positive and definitely some negative. We want to keep parents informed of what's going on, but we also want to help tell those good stories like our award-winning programs. We're not a pro-parent group against teachers and administrators. There's just so much going on for the teachers, the principals and the administrators, and this group just wants to help. And by getting involved, the research tells us it makes things better. It's about what you need and we'll find the people to make it happen."

The school system is on board with the group, and Superintendent Cooper has named Parents Empowered the official parents group recognized by the school system. Cooper says plans are in the works to create a parent coordinator out of an existing but unfilled position within the central office, a liaison between Parents Empowered and the system.

There's also an effort to have a Parents Empowered representative appointed for each school within the district, and so far, that has been accomplished for all but 10 schools.

"There isn't any doubt about it, when you get parents involved in an organized way, then the schools are going to be better in a lot of ways," says Cooper. "We have schools in the district without any parent organization, and through Parents Empowered, we'll create those organizations at every school. This will also commit parents directly to us at the central office, so when they have issues, we'll have a person on our staff who can figure it out and get things done. It makes for a much more nimble relationship between the school district and parents. We're just so thankful they've stepped up and just want to support us and make things better."

The group recently launched "Cafeteria Conversations" - a series of four town hall-styled meetings featuring the superintendent.

The effort is an attempt to get parents engaged in an open dialogue with the superintendent on the initiatives and issues affecting the school system.

The last of the events, which started in April, will be held at 6 p.m., Tuesday, May 6, at the Carencro High School cafeteria.

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