Parents University opens

Over the weekend, New Haven educated an inaugural class of parents with the launch of the city’s latest school reform initiative ­— Parent University.

Designed to teach parents how to help their children succeed in school, Parent University offers workshops and educational resources for parents of New Haven public school children. On Saturday, Gateway Community College hosted the program’s first event, which included more than 35 classes ranging from college preparation to child development. Event coordinators said they were pleased with the program’s turnout, which drew approximately 300 registered attendees. Organizers added that only standing room was available for some of the most popular classes. Parent University is expected to continue throughout the year, hosting smaller functions in local neighborhoods and another city-wide event in the spring.

“Parents are our first and most important teachers. Parent engagement is vital to the success of our students and for New Haven School Change,” Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said. “Today’s Parent University is part of what will be a broad and sustained effort to engage parents and to provide all families the tools and support they need to help their children succeed.”

Organizers said Parent University workshops were designed to help parents improve their own lives and the lives of their children. Classes focusing on students included, “How to Read with Your Child,” “Cyber Bullying and Social Networking” and “Success in Science,” while classes designated for parental improvement included “Parent Success Plan” and “Employment Marketing Profile.”

Susan Weisselberg, chief of Wraparound Services, which provides social and emotional counseling for students enrolled in New Haven’s public school system, said the parental evaluations collected at the end of workshops were “very positive”.

“People are very energized and excited by the event, which makes it very fulfilling,” Weisselberg said.

Abbe Smith, director of communications for New Haven public schools, said many of the most popular classes were ones that addressed child development and college planning. During “College Planning 101,” for example, parents learned how to apply for financial aid. Lisa Pressey, the parent of a New Haven eighth-grader, said she attended Parent University to learn about the New Haven Promise scholarship. She called Promise “empowering” and said Parent University exceeded her expectations.

The class titled “Addressing the Needs of Urban Boys” garnered a lively discussion about the challenges of raising boys in the city. Brett Rayford, director of adolescent and juvenile services for the Department of Children and Families, spoke about how to help boys navigate career paths, deal with the loss of a father and build interest in education.

While workshops covered a broad spectrum of topics, parents attending the event often questioned how to apply class strategies to their own lives. One parent raised her hand and said it was hard to get urban boys interested in education because boys who do well in school are ridiculed as “talking white” or “acting white.” Rayford talked about solutions to the problem. He suggested a “rite of passage” for boys or career interest tests to help students think about healthy careers early on in their education.

“It’s been there since I was a boy,” Rayford responded. “We devalue those who are focused on academics. It is not cool to be smart, and we’ve got to change that.”

He added after listening to the first session of “Addressing the Needs of Urban Boys,” a group of parents discussed forming a group to try to mitigate the problem. Pressey said she hopes that group comes together and that such a committee could include parents, teachers, administrators and students.

“The whole community needs to be involved,” Pressey said. “It affects everybody.”

Carla Chappel, the parent of a local eighth-grader, said she thought the class on urban boys’ development was valuable, but she had reservations about the first class she attended, which discussed how parents can communicate with their school. She said that while the administrator presenting at Parent University seemed to have a good system in place for parent communication, she is concerned that not all administrators have equally effective systems.

New Haven public school representatives said they hope to have workshops for parents throughout the year at local venues including libraries and schools. In the spring, they said they plan to have another city-wide Parent University at a setting similar to Gateway Community College.

Parent University provided child care services during the weekend event for children ages 3 to 12 at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School.

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