This blog was contributed by Emily Kempa and Nick Najor, Year Four fellows and Challenge #2 project coordination leads.

Perhaps no other organization in our city has the potential to affect more lives than Detroit Public Schools. Concern for the future of Detroit’s education system has remained at the forefront of Detroit’s collective consciousness for quite some time. With that responsibility in mind, the Challenge Detroit fellows were honored and excited to partner with Detroit Public Schools (DPS) for our second challenge project of the year. During this challenge, we focused our attention and efforts on understanding and improving parent engagement and empowerment in Detroit Public Schools.

Like Detroit itself, Detroit’s schools are diverse in their needs and approaches. To meet these needs and more adequately scope the project, the fellows were split into six teams, with each team assigned to a specific Detroit Public School. Our six schools of focus were:

  • SchoolsFisher Magnet Upper Academy
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School
  • Cody High School
  • Marcus Garvey Academy
  • MacKenzie Elementary-Middle School
  • Priest Elementary-Middle School

To kick-off the challenge, fellows were welcomed onto the campus of Cody High School, where they had the opportunity to hear from principals, teachers, parents, students, school community coordinators, Detroit Parent Network organizers, and additional stakeholders. During this empathy process, the myriad of barriers limiting families’ ability to engage quickly became apparent. With those barriers in mind, fellows immersed themselves in every opportunity to connect with their school community and explore potential suggestions.

Our work in this challenge was centered around this design question:

How might we better understand the challenges of our parents so that we can support and empower them to have more effective engagement with their students and school communities in support of raising student achievement?

Fisher WorkAfter the kickoff Friday, fellows spent the majority of working Fridays on site, getting to know their schools in different ways such as volunteering at lunch, interviewing students, or observing English Language Learning classes. In addition, fellows took the opportunity to participate in extra events and activities such as a community needs ideation session at Fisher Upper or volunteering at the Detroit Parent Network annual pancake breakfast. As DPS’s Jennifer Mrozowski stated on presentation Friday, “anywhere you went over the course of the project, whether it was a Friday or not, it seemed you ran into the Challenge Detroit fellows.”

Understanding what’s actually happening with parents and Detroit Public Schools allowed the fellows to craft questions that sought to address concerns or gaps in the relationship between the schools and the caregivers of its students. In doing so, each team was tasked with producing a deliverable consisting of four main components:

  1. Current State MapStakeholder Interviews – to thoroughly document the information and testimony gathered during the process that laid the foundation for our feedback and ideas
  2. Current State Map – to visualize what’s actually happening in school, highlighting areas of strength, weakness, and opportunity in the relationships and illustrating the connections between all stakeholders
  3. Strategic Plan – to present specific, implementable ideas that seek to make incremental improvements to parent relationships and engagement efforts
  4. Communication Toolkit – to increase understanding of existing tactics and to introduce potential new mediums to better meet parent’s needs

Using the lessons and experiences gained while immersed in their partner schools, the Challenge Detroit teams were able to offer insights, ideas, plans, and prototypes in order to help administrators make fact-based decisions at the individual school level or to the entire DPS district at large. Examples include:

  • PresentationA detailed digital and video guide to using the underutilized DPS parent portal
  • Defining and improving touchpoints parent-to-school touchpoints
  • Feedback and strategy suggestions for on-site Parent Resource Center
  • Google Voice as a no-cost method of staying in contact with transient families and overcoming outdated contact information
  • Planning guide for a Family Appreciation Day
  • Recommendations on how to more effectively address language barriers and cultural and/or immigrant challenges
  • Scheduling parent-teacher conferences to coincide with heavily attended extracurricular activities (e.g. football games)
  • Step-by-step guidebooks to hosting a school year kickoff event
  • Templates for flyers, social media messaging, and other outreach to parents

In addition to immediate deliverables like these, we hope that this challenge has helped spark continued conversations that can increase interest in empowering the Detroit education community. As the fellows learned in just a brief time, so much can be gained once you start the conversation. With 2015 coming to a close, both of our first two challenges have proven engaging, enlightening, and impactful. We certainly hope 2016 brings more of the same.