Hearing the Voices of Parents, Families, and Caregivers
By: Dawn Ellis, PhD, Liaison to Parents and Families, National Engagement Team, Office of Communication and Outreach
In January 2022, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona shared his vision for education in America, which addressed the need for more meaningful and authentic parent and family engagement. Sara Morrison, a mother of five living in New York, has experienced parent and family advocacy on different levels and knows the importance of meaningful and authentic family engagement. She has always been involved with her children’s education but shares more recent experiences with her younger two children. In an interview with the Department’s national liaison to parents and families, Dawn Ellis, Sara shared, “…as a mother who is legally disabled, raising two children who need supports through an IEP is no easy task. At times, I felt guilty as though I failed my children, not recognizing that their frustration was a cry for help. Once I stepped back and began to understand what they were experiencing through observing their learning process at home, having them explain their thought process behind a response to a homework assignment or connecting with teachers to see what they saw in my children, I became more active in their education, and within the school district. This served as a foundation for my advocacy for both my children and the families I advocate for. That is where I found true value in parent voice.”
“As a former school principal, I knew that partnering with parents was critical to our school’s growth,” said Secretary Cardona in a speech on his vision for education in America, which is a sentiment that the United Parents Leaders Action Network (UPLAN) shares. As part of their UPLAN Founding Vision: A policy platform for children and families, they believe “parents know best what works for their communities and should be meaningfully involved.” Sara’s home organization, Choice for All, is part of UPLAN’s network. Choice for All works with youth and parents to build their leadership and organizing skills to address issues that matter to them. In the interview, Sara identified the skills she gained that influenced her most as a parent leader. “The top three skills which influenced me the most are patience, perseverance, and understanding. These skills are consistent themes throughout my leadership journey, especially as a family/community advocate with my home organization, whereas a recent certified special education parent advocate, I accompany other families in CSE (Committee on Special Education) meetings to provide support and mentor them through the special education process.”
Sara also shares a few tips for families on how to engage with education professionals at the program, school, or community level:
- Get to know the educators in your child’s school, especially those that work directly with your child. This may look different for every family, as every family does not experience the same situation.
- Try to be as involved as possible. This is not easy for every family because of work, lack of daycare, and/or health concerns.
- Ask your school to provide the names of extra resources within your community that best fit your family’s needs.
- Lastly, do not be afraid to use your voice.
Secretary Cardona laid out key actions in four priority areas that will guide the Department’s work over the coming months and years. In June, the Department launched the National Parents and Families Engagement Council to help facilitate strong and effective relationships between schools and parents, and between families and caregivers, helping their voices play a critical role in how the nation’s children are recovering from the pandemic. Sara will represent UPLAN on the Council. During the interview, she shared her excitement about the Council: “I am excited that parents finally have a true seat at the table. That parents will have input in the decision-making process of what families across this country need to ensure that the educational needs of the children in our country are being met! As a member of this council, representing my national organization UPLAN-United Parent Leaders Action Network, it is my goal to bring every family’s voice to this table and to ensure that I am doing my very best to remove all inequities, injustices, and disparities that so many communities face daily. I am so honored to work with the Honorable Secretary Miguel Cardona who believes that all children deserve equal and quality education regardless of culture, race, or income!”