STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Helping schools by helping parents

Thomas Leth-Olson via Flickr, CC by 2.0

How do you make sure schools in communities without a lot of resources are successful?

That's not an easy question to answer, but we're always looking for promising leads.

And we found one in a Grand Rapids group that helps parents find the resources they need to be successful.

It's a frigid December morning when I arrive at Southwest Community Campus, a preschool through 8th grade school in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood of Grand Rapids. I head to the teacher's lounge where a group of adults crowds in around circular tables. 

"Esta mañana tenemos muchísimos información para todos ustedes," says Javier Cervantes. "Today, we have a lot of information for all of you."

This entire meeting will be in Spanish. The school is a Spanish immersion program, and that’s the primary language of most of the adults.

These adults are not teachers, or education experts, or politicians with a new program to sell, they are parents, and they’ve come to learn more about resources they can use to improve life for their family.

One of the first presenters is Susan Van Bromkhorst of the nearby Roosevelt Park Ministries. She runs through a list of offerings, including computer classes, classes in citizenship and in learning English.

There are other presenters as well, who get up and talk about preparing healthy meals, connecting with arts programs, and joining support groups. One presenter is from a staffing firm, and she talks about what kinds of jobs are available, for which shifts, and how to apply.

Toward the end of the meeting, Cervantes opens it up for questions from the parents.

A woman in the back raises her hand. It’s difficult to hear her question, but Cervantes summarizes it later for me.

"It was actually her first time coming to the meeting, so we were happy to have her here," Cervantes says. "But she had a question specifically about one of her older sons and she’s struggling with him."

He’s not showing up to school. He’s making bad decisions outside of school. The mom, like a lot of parents of teenagers, isn’t sure what to do.

But as soon as she asks her question, everyone in the room starts chiming in with ideas to help. Cervantes knows one of the people in the office at the school where the son goes. And there's SOL, a program run by the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, which helps get teenagers back on the right track.

Cervantes says being able to address specific issues like this is exactly why these meetings, called Parent Essentials meetings, exist.

"So we have definitely been motivating the parents to come to the meetings, because it’s not only boring information," he says. "It’s actually very beneficial. So we’ve been very blessed with that."

At one meeting last year, Cervantes says a few parents actually found new jobs from a Parent Essentials meeting.

That kind of help is what keeps parents coming, even when they have busy schedules.

Daniel Vasquez came with his wife and toddler-age daughter. He told me the first reason he came is because, for once, he didn’t have work. He says he usually works 12 hour days, four or five days a week. But he was free this morning.

And the second reason he said was to educate himself. He says he always tells his three school-aged children to study and learn new things, and he applies that to himself as well.

These Parent Essentials meetings have been running for a few years now in Grand Rapids. The community organization LINC Up and the Grand Rapids Public Schools say the meetings have engaged parents and helped reduce chronic absenteeism. But they’ve also started to have a real, tangible effect on the lives of families, helping parents solve problems and even helping them find a job.

The idea is that when parent’s lives are better, kids lives are better, and the schools will get better too.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.