PORTLAND — Parent engagement is still one of the most important factors in a child’s ability to succeed in school, and a reason the Portland Public Schools is launching a new initiative called Parent University.

“Parents and caregivers play a crucial role in the development of habits of work, character traits, and academic success,” according to the Parent U website.

The goal of Parent U is to “inform, engage and empower parents, guardians and caregivers to partner with their children’s school and build strong school communities … to promote the healthy development and academic achievement of every learner,” according to the website.

Grace Valenzuela, director of the Multilingual & Multicultural Center at the School Department, said Parent University is a model used by many school districts across the country to better engage and inform parents.

She also said that increasing family engagement “is one of the strategies to support the goals in our (new) comprehensive plan, the Portland Promise. Parenting is an ongoing learning process and there is much to learn not just from experts, but from each other.”

The idea, Valenzuela said, “is to provide a forum for education and dialogue that encourages empowerment. We want to heighten the engagement of parents in our schools (and) provide them the opportunity to network with professionals and other parents in the community.”

There are no enrollment requirements and all sessions are free and include child care. Parents need only attend the sessions that are of the most interest or most important to them individually. Parent U is not just limited to parents, but is open to anyone in the community who’s interested.

“(We’ll provide) fun, interactive, and informative sessions,” Valenzuela said. The hope is to “promote (our students’) development in all domains – cognitive, physical, socio-emotional.”

“We envision a community where all children thrive and are equipped to succeed and this requires the engagement of everyone – parents, educators, students, elected officials and community members,” she added.

Topics for each session of Parent U include how to help kids succeed in school and life, and how to raise healthy and resilient children.

The presenter at a launch event scheduled for 1-4 p.m. on Jan. 27 at Ocean Avenue Elementary School will be Amy Stuart Wells, a professor at Columbia University in New York, who will talk about the benefits of diverse schools and racially and culturally integrated education.

Parent University will run through early June and close with a Family Festival, according to the schedule.

Valenzuela said Parent U is being funded through two grants. One is from the Maine Community Foundation’s People of Color Fund and the other is from the Trustees of the Margaret E. Burnham Charitable Trust.

The Portland Public Schools are also partnering with community organizations that have “expertise on specific topics and (we’re) looking to harness the expertise of parents and community members,” she said.

The underpinnings of Parent U, according to Valenzuela, are that “parents’ voices, perspectives, and input are welcomed and highly valued” and the “diversity of our students and families contributes to the (overall) strength of our schools and community.”

She said the objective is to present educational and parenting topics that are relevant to the goals of the Portland Promise.

“For instance, whole child is one of these goals. To this end, we are featuring topics related to the social-emotional development of children such as ‘Raising Awareness on Anxiety,’ ‘Raising Powerful Confident Girls’ and ‘Negotiating Masculinity,'” Valenzuela said

She also said the School Department plans to survey participants at the kickoff in order to help identify topics to explore in the future.

To inform them about the new Parent University program, Valenzuela said the district is sending emails and calling the parents or caregivers of every student to invite them to attend the kickoff event.

“Flyers about the event will (also) be posted in school buildings (and) we will utilize our very active Facebook/Twitter” accounts, she said.

Ultimately, Valenzuela said, “We hope that the interesting, contemporary topics relevant to education and raising children will attract a wide audience. We are designing the sessions (to take place) in a variety of times and venues, hoping to accommodate different schedules.”

“We hope parents, caregivers, and other adult family members find the sessions beneficial as we work together to support our students and ensure that they are happy, well-adjusted, academically engaged and positive contributors to their school and community at large,” she said.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

The new Parent University initiative at the Portland Public Schools is designed to further engage and empower parents and forge a stronger school and community bond.

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