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Charlotte schools launch new program to empower parents

Regina Meeks faces a fascinating problem. As a technology instructor at Westerly Hills Academy, she spends much of her time with students between 5 and 14 years old. But for six weeks in February and March of 2017, Ms. Meeks is focusing on adults, in a new program designed to strengthen the digital and media literacy of parents.

The program is called “POWER,” an acronym for Parents Operating With Educational Resources, and it represents a collaboration among the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, Digital Charlotte, and two schools at Queens University — the Knight School of Communication and the Cato School of Education.

Ms. Meeks says the biggest challenge with parents is getting them comfortable with uncertainty.

“Some parents are not open to not knowing, and so we have to have those icebreakers that make everyone comfortable,” Ms. Meeks says. “There’s no judging, and it’s not an ‘I’ thing but a ‘we’ thing. We’re all there to learn. So part of my role is to create an atmosphere that makes parents comfortable with not knowing.”

The POWER program is starting with five schools – Bruns Academy, Druid Hills Academy, Reid Park Academy, Westerly Hills Academy, and Whitewater Middle School. After coordinating a series of workshops designed to understand the digital literacy needs of parents and build a curriculum, CMS facilitators and Queens faculty, staff, and students are now conducting parent training workshops in digital and media literacy. The material also covers CMS online resources for parent engagement. Assessment metrics to gauge the effectiveness of the curriculum are being coordinated among the organizations.

Specific subjects include how parents can use technology to communicate with teachers and administrators, how it’s used in classrooms, privacy and security.

“The power program is designed to help empower parents to be engaged in the educational process for their kids,” says LaTarzja Henry, executive director of community partnerships and family engagement for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. “Like everything else in the world, how we teach kids has shifted over time and what we’ve seen is that we are more engaged as a community using technology. What we want to do is make sure that we’re empowering parents with that information so that they can be a part of their child’s education journey.”

The organizations have been building the POWER program since 2016. Early investments have been in a “train the trainer” model for teams from each of the schools, including technology facilitators, parent advocates, teachers, and media specialists.

“We’ve talked about how can we best partner with organizations that really have an eye to connecting with families and trying to figure out the best way to give them information that can help them,” Ms. Henry says. “We’ve tried to think about and have been intentional about bringing families together to empower them and let them know that they’ve been selected to be a part of this pilot — so that they can learn more about how technology can help support the learning at home and then hopefully they’ll tell a friend, and that’s how it will spread.”

The role of impact of technology on a family learning environment is a rich topic for research among digital literacy and education specialists. One aspect of the field, sometimes called “joint media engagement,” examines how young people learn side-by-side at the elbow of an adult, and how parents and children influence each other in the acquisition of new skills. It’s a collaborative process, and Regina Meeks expects to learn as much from parents as she teaches them.

“We’re not going to know, starting out,” she says. “My job is that by the time the six weeks end, we will know. And we will have done it together…. My challenge is to make parents comfortable, and to create situations where technology can create powerful situations that change their lives.”

Photo above: A parent group at Bruns Academy attends the POWER launch event at the Goodwill Industries Opportunity Center on Feb. 1, 2018.