School Smarts Demystifies Public School Classrooms

A new program takes the mystery out of schools for Alameda parents. The state PTA hopes to expand it to every school in California.


Steve, Adele, and Carrie Sheret were among the families participating in Alameda’s School Smarts Program.



On a recent Tuesday night at Alameda’s Maya Lin School, 25 parents sit attentively despite being squished into small chairs. Instructor Gina Acebo stands at the blackboard under a rainbow, next to a column of international flags, and asks, “How do we increase face-to-face communication?” Parents suggest a morning kaffeeklatsch following school drop-off, an organized playground chat after school, and a parent book corner.

This particular class—part of the state PTA’s seven-session program to assist parents in becoming more involved in their children’s education—is about communication between home and school. Called School Smarts, the program aims to help parents, particularly recent immigrants, low-income families, and parents of the youngest students like kindergartners, figure out things like how to connect with their child’s teacher, check grades and attendance, meet fellow parents, and learn about back-to-school nights and parent-teacher conferences, and then, hopefully, turn into school leaders.

Launched in 2010 as a pilot program in 14 elementary schools in four districts, the program, funded by several grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (including a current three-year grant of $750,000), has now expanded to 50 elementary schools in 11 districts, including every elementary school in the Alameda Unified School District. School Smarts is also up and running in Pleasanton, San Francisco, and South San Francisco public schools; at the moment, the program is not in place in any other East Bay schools. The state PTA chose districts and schools based on a combination of diversity, local PTA capacity, and the number of high-needs students, says Michelle Eklund, communications manager for the state PTA.

“We provide to parents who often have felt marginalized and voiceless the tools to advocate for their children—and themselves,” says Barbara Adams, assistant superintendent for Alameda schools. “It can be so hard, if you aren’t a part of the dominant culture of a school or school district, to feel comfortable navigating the system and speaking up when you need to. Our [School Smarts] graduates go on to not only help their children, but also contribute to their school sites and the district as a whole.”

And indeed, navigating the school as a new parent can daunt anyone, particularly families whose first language is not English or who are struggling to make ends meet. About half of Maya Lin’s students are on the free- and reduced-price lunch program, and roughly a third are English language learners.

“Where do we fit in the puzzle?” says Julia Torres, mother of a second-grader. “What should we be worried about? What should we expect from students and teachers?”

“When my son started kindergarten, I was nervous,” says one woman during the group discussion. “I am the child of immigrants. I didn’t realize that my values were different,” says another. “I mean, we love our babies,” adds yet another parent. The whole room laughs.

In their Tuesday night class, the Maya Lin parents go on to discuss cultural misunderstandings, school newsletters stuffed into the backpack black hole, how to listen better, and the need for Chinese translation at PTA meetings. (The brightly decorated classroom has two tables set up with headphones and interpreters for Spanish and Cantonese speakers.)

Parents commit to spending two hours every week for seven sessions (dinner and child care are provided free), ending with a graduation ceremony. So far, Maya Lin attendance is typically high and consistent, Acebo says. In fact, 88 percent of the state program’s first participants—which included a large number of fathers—attended five or more sessions and earned an official certificate of completion during School Smarts’ initial year, according to the state PTA. And all 14 first-year pilot schools asked for the program to return.

Next year, the state PTA will begin significantly expanding the School Smarts program across the state, with the ultimate goal of making it available to all California schools and districts for a fee, Eklund says. Until the program is in place in every California school, several local districts already offer something similar. Berkeley public school parents, for example, can turn to the Office of Family Engagement and Equity, which offers parent workshops and school community trainings. And the Oakland Unified School District’s Community Schools program aims to make each school site a hub for academics, health, and social services so families can meet their needs in one place.

School Smarts classes cover topics such as how to create a home environment that encourages good study habits, how children learn, the structure of the state school system, how schools are governed, and what it means to be a leader. Many School Smarts graduates have already taken on leadership roles in their schools, says California State PTA President Colleen You.

“There is no shortcut to meaningfully engage parents. It takes time to develop,” You says. “It’s an ongoing ramping up of information to parents so that they understand their vital role in the process. We know that when parents are involved in their child’s education and advocate for high-quality education ... their students are more successful. It’s a historic opportunity for us.”

Each School Smarts participant receives a thick binder packed with information geared to each session. Several times during the communications class, Acebo referred to the binder materials on verbal versus nonverbal communication, active listening, and a list of suggested questions to bring to a parent-teacher conference. (What are my child’s best and worst subjects? How can I help him improve or do better? How does my child get along with his classmates?)

Each School Smarts class ends with an art project focused on the evening’s themes, which in addition to communication include parent involvement, preparing for a lifetime of learning, understanding the education system and the school, standing up for quality education, and taking action. Using colored paper and other materials, each Maya Lin parent makes a quilt square illustrating her communication style—images of ears, mouths, cell phones, and hearts bloom on the tables, and Acebo later gathers them into a big quilt.

Parent Gillian Gillette, who is paid to coordinate the School Smarts program at Maya Lin, an art-based magnet school, and also participates, says that during the art project, “People let down their guards.”

Recent Chinese immigrants Xiaorou Feng and Sue Liang particularly enjoy the art portion of the evenings. Feng, who has a second-grader, says through an interpreter that he likes using the artwork to express himself and his emotions. Liang brings her artwork home to share with her kindergarten-age son, and says she is grateful that she has learned how to communicate with teachers since taking the class.

And while the School Smarts classes impart many hours of crucial information, “what most resonates is the ability to connect with each other face to face. Parents always say, ‘I am just so grateful to have other parents to talk to about this.’ On a very basic level it’s about having a network of parents with a shared goal of improving their school,” says Acebo, School Smarts facilitator for Maya Lin.

Parents who can help their kids at home combined with more parents taking on leadership roles on the PTA and school site councils is “invaluable,” Adams says. “Informed, empowered parents help us do our job better.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story misidentified the family in the photograph.

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