Hill Harper (Courtesy photo)
Hill Harper (Courtesy photo)

Gorman E. Brown and Scott Andrews incorporate a family atmosphere mixed in with touch love, enthusiasm and praise for students at Charles Herbert Flowers High School.

Brown, the school’s principal, and Andrews, a math teacher, take family seriously not only because they work on the campus in Springdale, but their sons attend the school. They plan to enhance better ways to bond with students and their families during the Prince George’s County Public Schools’ inaugural Family Institute Conference at Flowers on Saturday, Sept. 10.

“As a district, we see the value in investing in families and understanding it takes more than what goes on in the classroom to make our children are successful,” said Gorman, whose son is in the 10th grade. “To have a strong community, you must have a strong public school system.”

Actor and philanthropist Hill Harper will be one of the guest speakers. He’s also an award winning author with several books that include “Letters to a Young Brother,” “The Conversation” and “Letters to an Incarcerated Brother.”

The other guest speaker, Marian Wright Edelman, serves as president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, a national advocacy organization that seeks universal pre-kindergarten, an end to mass incarceration and juvenile justice reform.

As of Wednesday, at least 1,200 people have registered to attend the free conference, as details about the conference were distributed via radio, email and robocalls.

“We know that Saturday mornings are not the ideal time to get families and educators out to talk about bullying and navigating the school system. We purposely got two speakers who can speak to the community,” said Christian Rhodes, who heads the school system’s Department of Family and Community Engagement. “Historically, we haven’t provided families with the right amount of information. We want to help parents be their children’s first and best teacher.”

Rhodes and Shelia Jackson, director of the department, both led the effort to organize Saturday’s 5½-hour program with four sessions, or “strands,” divided into more than two dozen topics.

Jackson, whose husband and their four children graduated from Prince George’s public schools, said the conference will be the county’s first comprehensive program that delves into ideas on how educators and parents/guardians can interact more effectively on a daily basis.

Jackson admits it can be tough to convince parents and guardians the school system’s effective in teaching their children, especially when dealing with crises such as recent allegations that teachers and staff humiliated and abused children in the Head Start program.

“I think the best way to convince parents that the school system works is to share to the success stories. I like to share that,” said Jackson, who mentioned about her daughter and 10 others who graduated from Harvard Law School in 2011 and alumni of the county school system. “In spite of [negative] things that may happen, there are still good things going on.”

Creating family engagement

The Department of Family and Community Engagement got established by school system CEO Kevin Maxwell in 2014 with an office in Landover, in hopes to increase parental involvement in the schools and ensure staff communicate more effectively with parents.

The goal: incorporate parents into the school system structure with support from nonprofit and community organizations to provide mentoring, student internships and other activities.

During the fiscal year 2015, about 63 Parent Engagement Assistants (PEA), formerly known as parent liaisons, got assigned into schools to provide advice on participating in school meetings, referrals to community-based services and other activities.

Jackson said the school system’s community engagement model comes from Karen L Mapp, a Harvard lecturer on education who’s wrote numerous publications on the topic of parental involvement in schools.

In July, Mapp led a course at Harvard for educators and school officials on ways to institute engagement programs in their respective districts. An overview of the agenda states: “[School] districts have discovered that school leaders, teachers and other staff must develop particular skills, knowledge and dispositions to effectively include families in the life of the school.”

In Prince George’s, which has nearly 129,000 students and ranks in the top 25 in the nation, the conference will allow parents to engage in the first three strands on “Family Empowerment,” “21st Century Learning” and “Health and Wellness.” Some of the topics include:

  • Parent/Teacher conferences;
  • College and career readiness; and
  • Conflict resolution.

The fourth strand will be designated “PGCPS Connects” for teachers and staff on learning how to engage with families more effectively.

“When you look at what educators are taught [in college], they are taught about the curriculum. They are not taught how to engage families who may have had difficulties with a child who had a bad education in the past,” said Rhodes, the school system’s Family Engagement leader. “If we are building a true community of learners, we must have everyone involved in the education process.”

Andrews, the math teacher at Flowers high school, hopes the conference will provide him additional resources as a second-year teacher and for his two sons in the 11th and 12th grade, respectively.

“I gained a new level of respect for those with an educational background because it’s no cakewalk,” said Andrews, a former electrical engineering and Walk Street trader. “My wife and I go to the football games. My sons played different sports and involved in different activities. The family piece ties together in and out of the classroom.”

When the conference ends, the plan will be to schedule bi-weekly workshops throughout the county and school year.

For more information and to register for the conference, visit www.pgcpsfamily.org, call 301-618-7356 or email family.institute@pgcps.org.

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Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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