Innovative City Program Teaches Civic Engagement to Parents

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Many cities have made ensuring all young children start kindergarten ready to succeed a top priority – and this will only happen when parents are a part of the equation.

Parents are key stakeholders who know what children need, and their voices must be included in policy discussions. (Getty Images)

On a recent visit to Kansas City, Missouri, I was lucky enough to learn about the Parent Leadership Training Institute (PLTI) and hear from parents who have been part of this innovative program. Parental engagement is a vital component of any strong early childhood system, and PLTI is a program that is enabling parents to be civic leaders and advocates for their children in their communities across the country.

With help from the National League of Cities (NLC) Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute), Kansas City officials and key community stakeholders are exploring whether the PLTI program is a good fit for their city. After NLC sent Julie Holland, Education Advisor to Kansas City Mayor Sly James, to New Orleans to witness the PLTI program in action, she excitedly advised the mayor to look into bringing the parent empowerment model to the city.

Mayor James, a strong champion of early learning, enthusiastically spoke about PLTI in a recent radio interview, saying, “this is a program that will enhance [parental] engagement, but also takes it outside of the schools. It takes it out into the community. It builds leadership, and Lord knows we could use more leaders.”

While Kansas City is still in the exploratory phase, Mayor James wants as many local parents as possible to eventually take advantage of the PLTI program. He believes it fills an important need to increase and support parental engagement. Kansas City is an excellent example of local leaders taking action to create the necessary components of an early learning nation.

The PLTI model begins with the assumption that parents want what is best for their children, but often lack the leadership skills and civic knowledge to be effective advocates. PLTI Executive Director Elaine Zimmerman began the program in Connecticut after realizing that parents are an important stakeholder group that often was not given a seat at the table when it came to decisions about children’s lives. Through PLTI, a cohort of 25 parents over a series of 20 weekly classes learn key leadership and civic engagement skills such as data analysis, public speaking, and the basics of public policy formation.

The data is clear: after completing PLTI, parents increased their knowledge of how state and local laws work, increased their involvement in their communities, and exhibited increased willingness to work across boundaries with parents who were not similar to them. Participants stay in contact with their parent cohort through an alumni network, and pursue their own civic engagement project in the local community. Laced throughout PLTI is the belief in the agency and intelligence of parents, and each project is completely chosen by the parents.

Benita Cochran, a parent leader and graduate of PLTI in New Orleans, spoke about her experiences with the program in a powerful testimonial to local leaders in Kansas City. Cochran described how PLTI helped her find her voice as a leader and truly changed her life after her husband passed away.

“Over the course of the 20 weeks my mantra changed from ‘I’m just a parent’ to ‘I AM a parent.’ I have a voice, and it’s worth listening to,” Cochran told the group in Kansas City. She also credits her involvement in PLTI with significant changes in her children’s behavior and educational outcomes, saying “the shift that happened to me, the shift that happened to my home, was profound… when I went into PLTI, my daughter was failing. My daughter now has straight A’s.”

Hearing testimonials like this is not something I will forget anytime soon. Parents are key stakeholders who know what children need, and their voices must be included in policy discussions. PLTI is one model that gives parents the tools to be confident leaders at the early learning decision-making table.

If you’re interested in strengthening family engagement efforts in your community, contact Alana Eichner at NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education and Families at eichner@nlc.org.

About the author: Alana Eichner is the Early Childhood Associate in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.