Family Success at the Heart of Engagement Efforts in Mass. District
- Expertise: Parent Engagement
- Position: Chief Parent and Community Engagement Officer
- District: Springfield Public Schools, Springfield, Mass.
If parents in the Springfield, Mass., school system want to help their children with the college-application process, figure out how to balance the family budget, learn to knit, or even become a certified lifeguard, there’s a class for that, thanks to the district’s Parent Academy.
Now in its fourth year, the academy, started by Patricia A. Spradley, the chief parent and community engagement officer in the 26,000-student district, offers more than three dozen courses. Some are geared toward academics, some toward student well-being, some are just for fun.
There’s a theory behind the smorgasbord of classes for parents. The Springfield Parent Academy, which is a collaboration among community agencies, businesses, schools, and faith-based organizations, borrowed strategies from similar efforts around the country, including a well-known program in Boston. But instead of focusing primarily on how families can help their children do better in school, as many academies do, the Springfield program sought to add an appealing twist for parents: How do you help yourself succeed?
“We knew we had to meet parents where they were,” Ms. Spradley said. “We realized early on that the environment was going to have to be something that interested them.”
In this urban, high-poverty district on the southwestern edge of Massachusetts, that meant going beyond academics.
Lessons from the Leader
- Strong Relationships: Building relationships is essential for social and academic success. Knowing about individuals, beyond a child’s academics, makes difficult conversations easier, because parents believe that you genuinely care about them and their child.
- Planning and Coordination: Coordinate, collaborate, and align for efficiency to help alleviate redundancy, create opportunities for program improvements, and enable the district to serve more customers. Having a diversity of players at the table, providing their best thinking, is a win-win for everybody.
- Parent Capacity: Educators must understand the importance of linking student achievement and parent capacity-building if schools are going to make the necessary gains.
The goals at the heart of the program? To help parents—and grandparents, siblings, other caregivers, and community members—connect with their neighborhood schools, pick up new skills, learn to advocate for themselves and their children, and, perhaps most importantly, serve as role models for students when it comes to the importance of lifelong learning.
“When we can have children see their parents succeed, when we can make the family a success, that goes much further than just the individual student,” Ms. Spradley said.
Resources for Educators
To accommodate Springfield’s sizable immigrant population, academy courses are offered in English but have also been made available in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Somali. Parents can take classes at libraries, schools, businesses, churches, and in apartment complexes. Courses sometimes have only one parent enrolled or as many as 22. They can be anything from one-off workshops to recurring events.
The academy has become a resource for educators throughout the district, said Gianna Allentuck, the school-adjustment counselor at Elias Brookings Elementary School. “It’s still relatively new, but in that time, holy moly,” she said. “You name it, they have a workshop.”
There are even “courses on wheels” that come right to a particular school or cluster of schools, sometimes at the request of a guidance counselor, principal, parent, or teacher.
“You can call them up and say, ‘I’ve got 50 families who need information about asthma,’ ” and the Springfield Parent Academy will figure out a way to meet the need, Ms. Allentuck said.
Ms. Spradley and some members of her team lead the courses themselves or find instructors who are willing to lead classes for free. The whole program costs the district less than $100,000 a year. The efforts seem to be paying off. By the end of last year, the district had nearly 250 registrations for its courses.
The Parent Academy may be one of the most recent, prominent examples of Ms. Spradley’s leadership, but it’s far from the only high point of her more than two decades of work with the district, under four different superintendents.
Ms. Spradley, 56, came to Springfield through a nontraditional route. Her last job before coming to the district was working as a regional manager for Manpower Temporary Services, a job-placement agency. But she’d felt like she had hit a ceiling of sorts on that track, and in the early 1990s, the district was looking to hire three new leaders with backgrounds outside of education who could bring a fresh perspective to district management and serve as “change agents” within the system. The tasks included helping the district run more efficiently and better prepare students for the workforce.
A Strong Advocate
After helping with that work, Ms. Spradley put her past life in human resources to use, heading up the district’s efforts to help students transition from school into the workforce. As the program grew, she added a family component. Her school-to-career program, Stairway to Success, required parents to attend an orientation, where Ms. Spradley gave them the same job- and career-interest assessment she gave to her students.
“It helped foster some desires and aspirations for them as well,” she said.
Ms. Spradley’s portfolio has vastly expanded over the years, and she currently oversees eight programs. She’s in charge of parent liaisons, the full- and part-time staff members assigned to each school to help facilitate contact with families. She helps parents navigate public school options, which allow students to transfer to public schools outside the district. She works on family outreach, school volunteers, and homeless education services. She also plays a role in deciding who can open charter schools in Springfield.
Also in her portfolio: the district’s parent-resource information center, which just a few years ago was in the basement of a school that was difficult to reach for many parents and even district employees. Now, thanks in part to Ms. Spradley’s advocacy, the center has a home on Springfield’s main thoroughfare, with plenty of parking. And the customer service at the center, which helps parents navigate everything from school registration to special education testing, has also improved.
She also manages relationships with the business community, foundations, and others, and she’s not afraid to tell outside partners when their plans for lending a hand don’t necessarily jibe with the district’s needs.
When we can have children see their parents succeed, when we can make the family a success, that goes much further than just the individual student.
Ms. Spradley has worked to ensure that contributions and assistance from outside groups align with the district’s goals—like improving early literacy—rather than simply accepting without question the “feel-good things the community wanted to do,” like getting new carpet or a popcorn machine for a particular school, she said.
“I’m afraid of her; I tell her all the time that I’m afraid of her,” joked Mary E. Walachy, the executive director of the Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation in Springfield, which works with the district and other nearby school systems. “She’s a real go-getter. She’s not a fluff.”
But Ms. Spradley’s businesslike side is balanced, Ms. Walachy said, with genuine warmth and empathy for the parents
she’s working with. It’s not unusual, those who know Ms. Spradley say, to see her hugging parents or high-fiving students at an event.
“The work she has done is absolutely unmatched,” said Alan Ingram, who served as the superintendent in Springfield for four years before being named Massachusetts’ deputy education commissioner in 2012. “The way she has mobilized the community, the way that she has engaged parents, … we’re trying to replicate that in other areas in Massachusetts.”