Peach County shows off parent outreach skills during regional conference

jmink@macon.comOctober 25, 2012 

FORT VALLEY -- Michelle Sandrock knows how difficult it can be for schools to get parent feedback. So she was impressed when more than 250 parents attended meetings at Peach County schools to offer opinions on a program.

“To get 200-some parents to come out and give feedback on a plan, it’s huge,” said Sandrock, parent engagement program manager for the Georgia Department of Education.

That’s one reason officials with the statewide Parent Involvement Coordinators program chose Peach County for one of their five annual meetings. About 107 parent coordinators, guidance counselors and other school employees from across the region attended the program Thursday at Fort Valley State University. The state holds regional meetings every other year, and officials were impressed by Peach County’s presentations at the most recent statewide parent conference, Sandrock said.

During Thursday’s program, Peach County schools highlighted its Grandparents As Parents program, which works to identify students who are being raised by their grandparents and give those grandparents resources they need. Grandparents are raising their grandchildren in about 329 households in Peach County, according to the latest U.S. Census, and those homes include single grandmothers, great-grandparents raising both grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and maternal and paternal grandparents raising children together, said Barbara Ezell, parent coordinator at Fort Valley Middle School.

“We have all types of grandparents,” she said.

In 2008, the district began holding meetings for those grandparents. Now, several district grandparents attend those meetings every third Thursday of the month at Fort Valley United Methodist Church, where they get advice from professionals, such as attorneys, and form relationships with other grandparents who are in similar situations. The program has sent children who are being raised by grandparents on field trips that include Robins Air Force Base and an Atlanta Hawks basketball game.

In addition to building its grandparent program, the district has invested some Title I money -- federal funds allocated to schools with a high number of children from low-income families -- into a translator device for parents who do not speak English. The $4,000 system gives parents a set of headphones to wear during meetings, so they can hear the meetings as they happen, only translated into their native languages. They are similar to translator systems used in courtrooms.

“In the past ... we’ve stopped to translate, interrupting the speaker,” said Ken Banter, district director of Title I.

And those meetings have changed. While the school system once only had parent meetings at the district’s resource center, school officials decided this year to bring those meetings to the parents by holding them at individual schools. Parents gather to hear what is happening in their children’s schools and to offer feedback. The district also used Title I funds to purchase a $400 mobile speaker that is used at each meeting, Banter said.

At a recent meeting, “we were flooded,” Banter said. “We were pleasantly surprised with the numbers.”

State officials wanted parent coordinators from Macon to the Florida and Alabama borders to come to Peach County Thursday to hear about the district’s recent success with parent outreach, Sandrock said.

“Parent engagement is essential,” she said. “Children achieve at higher levels when parents are involved.”

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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