Parent Access to Information
Engaged in Parent Information Action Research with University of Hartford
Supporting parents to develop the leadership skills to become active participants in education decision-making has long been a central theme in Memorial Fund initiatives. And so it was interesting, and perhaps a little puzzling, when a need for parent information surfaced during discussions with communities to develop the Memorial Fund’s 2010-2014 strategic plan.
During a focus group conducted by the Memorial Fund, parents helped staff to better understand what was meant by parent information. They heard from the community participants that information is power. Professionals, funders, and researchers have it but many others, including many parents, do not.
Ultimately, the 2010-2014 strategic plan continued a commitment to increase parent engagement and leadership in early care and education and included information as a specific action within the strategy. The question became - what was a useful action and how could the Memorial Fund support this work? Parents were talking not just about availability of information in a report or on a website, but about credibility of information and how, when and where it is gathered and how it should be used.
During this time period, the Memorial Fund had been invited to develop a learning partnership with the Kettering Foundation, a national foundation that focuses on encouraging public deliberation. This new relationship created an opportunity to launch a project that supported parents to work together to develop an issue guide to be used in community conversations and discussion forums. The project descriptor, “Parents Helping Parents Get the Information They Need” became the guiding principal in the work and emerging learning partnership.
Parent Action Research and an Issue Guide
The Memorial Fund chose to work with a university partner. The Parent Information Action Research Project, developed by Dr. Paige Bray from the University of Hartford, set out to develop both skills and ways of thinking, while deepening the parents’ understanding of leadership. These engaged parent leaders, working together and with parents in their communities, identified their own questions and outcomes. The project focused on supporting parent leaders to use community based action research to generate knowledge about and effect change in their communities.
The project unfolded in two phases. In the first year, 10 parent co-researchers from 5 communities, with support from their Discovery collaboratives and the University of Hartford, talked to over 100 parents, grandparents, teachers and others in their communities. They gathered information about what it takes to nurture children. These conversations, in addition to community and state-wide focus groups, were the basis for an issue guide.
Looking for Answers Together, An Issue Guide offers three options to address the question of how to nurture children to be healthy and make better choices. During community conversations using this guide, communities consider the actions and drawbacks of each option.
In the second year of the project, each parent co-researcher designed, implemented and documented an action research project related to the interests and needs in their community. They presented their data and actions at the 2012 Stone Soup conference. The focus of the action projects varied, including:
-sharing information to address bullying,
-celebrating and supporting new parents and connecting them with local support and information,
-creating various ways of sharing information and connecting families to resources via the Internet or existing community events,
-creating safe places for children that would also serve as gathering places for parents, and
-using information to support parents in advocating for children in their communities.
Parents received a stipend over the two years to reinforce the value of their commitment. Though the stipend was modest, parents said it helped defray the cost of their participation and made them feel that their work was valued and important. Parents were acknowledged as key producers of information, not just end users.
Working directly with Discovery collaboratives on a parent focused project was a rich and challenging experience. It was important that the process compliment the Discovery collaborative’s strategies and activities related to parent support and not draw valuable talent and resources away from the collaborative.
Involving parent co-researchers from the start of the background research through to action required a unique structure and set of supports. Although most parents had prior parent leadership experiences, they each came to the process with diverse backgrounds and skills.
The process of creating a learning community among parents, while at the same time expanding the reach of the project into communities, required a high degree of facilitation. The length of the engagement (2 years) provided the opportunity for parent co-researchers to develop trust and a solid working relationship through their interactions. Technology also helped to support the process by bridging the in-person meetings and facilitation. An online space provided interaction among University of Hartford researchers and parent co-researchers. All had access to a timeline of upcoming events and a discussion forum.
The project work was also designed around parent needs. Meetings were scheduled at convenient times. Food, childcare, and transportation (when needed) were provided. These key elements of design and support enabled continued parent participation in the process. Dr. Bray points to the fact that all 10 parents that began the project saw it through. “I thought that we would lose people along the way. The fact that we did not is still stunning to me.”
Looking for Answers Together, An Issue Guide was published in Spanish and English in 2013. The guide has been disseminated throughout the Discovery network and parents are being trained as moderators to facilitate conversations in their communities. The hope is that communities across the country make use of the guide and support materials.
In 2013-14, the University of Hartford, parent co-researchers, the Memorial Fund, and the Kettering Foundation will partner with Connecticut Community Conversations to provide grants to communities to support communities in holding conversations using the issue guide.
The University of Hartford has also launched the Parent Inquiry Initiative, referred to as Parentii.