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"For the First Time in Their Lives, Someone Was Listening To Them" - The Story of the Firs

Editor's Note: Last fall, Center for Transforming Communities (CTC) provided grants to three Shalom Zones to help them implement projects to improve education in their neighborhoods. These were small grants, but we knew that even a small amount of resources in the hands of our Shalom Zone partners could have big impacts. All three participating Shalom Zones have wrapped up their projects, and over the coming days we’re going to be posting about their accomplishments. Yesterday, we wrote about how the South Memphis Shalom Zone pulled together local resources to offer an ACT prep and college readiness program in their neighborhood. Today, read about The Corners of Highland Heights and how the parents of the kids enrolled in their FirstWorks tutoring program came together support each other and their neighborhood’s children.

One of the most important lessons to learn when doing community work is to listen. This is harder than it sounds. Too often, we’re so eager to get started changing the community that we forget to take time to truly listen and understand the issues from the community’s perspective.

Since 2010, The Corners of Highland Heights Shalom Zone has been the steward of an after-school tutoring program called FirstWorks. Twice per week, between 30 and 50 elementary- and middle-school students gather in the fellowship hall at Highland Heights United Methodist Church for dinner, then head upstairs for several hours of tutoring and studying. The FirstWorks program has been around for many years, and has become an important resource for the families of Highland Heights.

FirstWorks students gather with teachers for dinner.

On February 28, 2015, members of the Highland Heights community gathered at the Neighborhood Engagement to Shape the Future of Education to set priorities for action to improve education. They wanted to think through what they could do, as community members, to help contribute to better educational outcomes for the neighborhood’s kids. They knew that the FirstWorks tutoring program was a good start, but they wanted to do more.

One of the priorities that came out of this gathering was “parental involvement.” They recognized that it was important for parents to be involved in their children’s education – What could they do to help address this issue?

Honestly, this made me a little uncomfortable. “Parental involvement” is a common refrain from teachers and community members who feel like parents – especially parents in poor communities – just aren’t pulling their weight. I used to hear this sometimes when I was a teacher. “If only the parents would get involved, our job as educators would be so much easier.” “It’s like parents just don’t care anymore.” I worried that maybe The Corners was buying into this narrative. Of course, I was wrong.

The Corners decided to engage the parents of the kids enrolled at FirstWorks to help them be more involved in their childrens’ education. When I talked with Eric McCreight, the FirstWorks program coordinator, he told me that from the very beginning his goal for the initiative was to listen. He invited the parents to come together and share about their experiences as parents – What issues were most important to them? What did they want to discuss? Where did they feel like they needed the most support?

“For the first time in many of these parents’ lives, somebody was listening to them,” Eric told me, “Do you know how powerful that is? For the first time, their opinions mattered.”

Soon, he had a regular group of 15 parents meeting each month to discuss whatever they wanted. With a grant from Center for Transforming Communities (CTC), FirstWorks was able to recruit a Spanish-English interpreter to help facilitate the meetings, where about half of the parents could only speak Spanish. Before long, the Spanish-speaking parents began gathering after each meeting for English lessons.

Amy Pearson with parents from FirstWorks.

Amy Pearson, a longtime volunteer with FirstWorks who also works with parents at a local school, came onboard to help guide the meetings. She shared that one of the first things she learned at FirstWorks was that the program wasn’t so much about academic support, it’s more about being community.

“And that spilled over into the parenting program,” Amy said, “The big benefit for the participants is that sense of community. It makes you feel like you’re not alone and you realize that we all have struggles raising kids. And I can’t say enough about the Hispanic parents and how they’re getting to participate with other parents and have that community.”

Throughout the school year, the group focused on a variety of topics: how the parents could access higher education opportunities, ideas for healthy eating at home, household budgeting and accounting, affordable summertime activities to do with your kids, even “Sanity at Christmas” – a session about ways to avoid being overwhelmed by the pressures of the holidays. In each case, the parents drove the conversation and decided what they would talk about at their next meeting.

At the end of the school year, Eric and Amy realized that people had noticed just how special this parents’ group was. As they are gearing up for the start of a new school year, The Junior League of Memphis – who has been a longtime supporter of FirstWorks – has committed to help grow the program. They’ll continue working with the parents to develop a curriculum and content for each session, and they’ll provide resources and volunteers to allow the parents to meet every week. Meanwhile, the pastor of Highland Heights UMC, Rich Cook, is working to prepare a room in the church specifically for the parents that will have space for their meetings as well as computers that they can use to access the internet for job searches and other activities.

But, as the effort to engage parents grows, it will be important to remember how it started. As Eric reminded me, “[The parents] only bought into the program because somebody listened to them. You can’t help someone if you’re not willing to listen.”

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