Michele Molnar, Education Week, February 4, 2013 – The day Michele Brooks “lost it” as the frustrated mother of a Boston high school student became a moment that transformed her life forever.
That was 20 years ago, and today Brooks works inside the Boston school system as the assistant superintendent in charge of the district’s office of family and student engagement.
Brooks is credited with strategically aligning Boston’s parent-engagement efforts with the district’s academic goals, which moved the work of her office from a peripheral activity to one that is central to the needs of the district’s 57,000 students and their families.
“When I first started in this role, I could say I was the only one who would bring up, ‘So, what about the families?’ Now, whether I’m at the table or not, the conversation is about the families,” says Brooks, who has been leading the office for the past four years.
One of her high-profile efforts over that time has been launching and overseeing Parent University—a program that has educated parents on their roles as teachers, advocates, leaders, and learners themselves. Her staff collaborates with the other offices in the district, coordinates outreach and training, creates publications, and implements programs to advance the district’s vision: “Every school will welcome every family and every student, actively engaging them as partners in student learning and school improvement.”
None of that was in Brooks’ scope as the disgruntled mother of a 9th grade daughter two decades ago. Brooks, 59, had moved her family from Tennessee back to Boston so her three children could benefit from the outstanding education she herself had received in public schools there.
But things went south fast. When her daughter received an A on a slapdash essay, and defiantly conveyed a guidance counselor’s comment that “not everyone is cut out for college,” Brooks—who worked in information technology then—came to the school to talk with the principal. His secretary first ignored, then insulted her, Brooks says.
“I was livid,” Brooks recalls. The principal respectfully asked Brooks why she was so upset, saying, ” ‘I work for you. How can we make this right?’ ” He explained his challenges with the teaching staff and enlisted Brooks’ help, asking that she demand better, and be present at the school.
Brooks volunteered the following day, then the next—quickly deciding to leave her full-time job so she could devote even more time to the schools.
Brooks has never looked back. She started a family center in her daughter’s high school where parents can meet to network and seek resources. She also helped organize parents when the school lost accreditation and, four years later, shared in the pride as the school graduated an entire class of students. “Every single one had a college-admission letter or was going into the [military] service,” she says.
She went on to become the founding director of the Boston Parents Organizing Network, which began as a community-based group advocating to avert school budget cuts and establish a strong office of family and community engagement. Brooks spent five years in the network and later was appointed to the school board. Superintendent Carol Johnson recruited Brooks for her current position in 2008.
“As an organizer—that’s how I do this work. I’m always looking for connections. That’s the key. When the district lays out its priorities, every single one of my colleagues has a piece of that work, including me,” says Brooks. “I do an analysis: How can I support their work and connect our work?”
For example, this year the district’s priority is literacy. Her office conducted a parent and child writing club, which turned out to be a successful pilot, with 15 families meeting to improve their 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders’ performance as writers on open-response assignments. Over eight sessions, parents and children worked on projects together. Eventually, parents became writing coaches for their children.
This laser focus on broader districtwide goals means Boston has avoided the pitfalls of similar family-related offices in many other districts, where schools become caught up in what experts call “random acts of family engagement,” says Karen L. Mapp, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the director of its education policy and management program. “In Boston public schools, we really see that family engagement is a strategy toward whole-school improvement,” Mapp says.
Brooks’ first step when taking her position was to define “family and student engagement” as the work of everybody in the district: administrators, teachers, support staff, custodians, and bus drivers.
The school system adopted the National PTA’s six standards for family-school partnerships, and measures schools and teachers against them. “We measure ourselves to those standards, too,” Brooks explains.
Early on, Brooks confronted another issue. “We know the folks in the district really believe family and student engagement is critically important. One of the assumptions you make is that, if you believe in it, you’ll go out and do it. That was wrong,” she says.
So Brooks began to focus on a new area: capacity building. For her shrinking staff, that meant training them to do more with less, deepen their knowledge base, focus on strategies rather than events, and leverage instructional shifts to influence educational practice. For parents, she says, the goal was to “build confidence in their own ability to navigate the school system, advocate for their children, partner with their teachers to support student learning”—helping them to become what Rudy Crew, a former schools chief in the New York City and Miami-Dade County, Fla., districts, calls “demand parents.”
One way Brooks’ office attempts to do that is through Parent University, launched in her first year on the job. Parents choose classes in three intensive Saturday “universities” throughout the year. Topics include what children should know at different grade levels, their brain development, how to deal with adolescents, how to navigate the school system to advocate for your child, healthy cooking, and how to use a computer. Those programs have more than doubled in attendance since they began. In addition, parents attend satellite sessions in a range of subject areas, from English-as-a-second-language instruction to completing their own high school education or getting a GED. Funding for Parent University primarily comes from the district’s Title I funds.
In her second year, Brooks’ team created grade-level guides for student learning in conjunction with the curriculum and instruction office. The guides instruct parents about what their students should be learning as they progress through school. Aligned with the Common Core State Standards, those guides have been translated into a number of languages.
In 2011, Brooks’ office launched professional development to help educators think about family engagement in new ways. Plans are also in the works to award “Family Friendly School Certification” to schools that excel or progress in their efforts to engage families.
A backdrop to the accomplishments of Brooks and her office are the budget cuts that caused the size of her staff to drop from 23 when she was hired in 2008 to 13 today, and shrank her budget to its current level of $2.9 million.
They were “a curse because we’re limited in what we can do, and a blessing because [they] really forced us to focus and prioritize,” she says.
Brooks’ work has gained a national reputation, partially thanks to her position as a founding member of the District Leaders Network on Family and Community Engagement, a 50-member peer network that brings together district leaders from across the country to meet in Washington at the Institute for Educational Leadership.
Michael Sarbanes, the executive director of the office of engagement for the Baltimore public schools, is one of the district leaders who have worked closely with Brooks through the network. “What I think has been extraordinary about how Michele has come at the work is a combination of her deep experience working with parents, coupled with an understanding of the leverage points around academic achievement within the school system, and then how to link those up,” he says.
Brooks’ ultimate goal is to create sufficient capacity so that her office will be unnecessary. “If we’ve done our job right, we will not have a job,” she says.