Parent-Engaged Design Process: Connecting Visions to Goals

Meghna Nandi
By Meghna Nandi

The First Teacher Team, with Dinah Shepherd, founder of First Teacher, Maritza Ortiz Bennett and Nikole Huertas, Parent Leaders at First Teacher, certainly took on this challenge head first. Their progress over the 90-Day Challenge exemplifies how tools from the Leadership Summit can be used to jumpstart and propel the great work our partners are already doing! Read more to learn about how Dinah, Maritza and Nikole engaged parent voices and used Plan-Do-Study-Act Cycles and tracking improvement strategies from the Leadership Summit in their work at First Teacher. The Leadership Summit may have been months ago, but the tools and lessons learned can carry on to the present within the work of our Network!

Curious to learn more about how Dinah began First Teacher, a community-based initiative working to support parents prepare their children for school, I asked her about the journey that led her to this work at the School Readiness Roundtable meeting at DSNI last month. She recounted some of her experiences teaching high school and middle school, and how she realized that children needed to be better prepared for school at an earlier age, before students fell further and further behind. Dinah reflected, “My own kids have two parents talking to them all the time and they had vocabularies outpacing some of my middle schoolers.” Seeing the stark contrast between different students’ performance and ability to succeed in school, it became apparent to Dinah how critical it is to foster an environment at home that allows children to be ready for school from the very beginning. “It’s [about] environment, not capacity.”

Through Dinah’s experiences teaching she was also struck by the limited organizational efforts to engage parents in their children’s education. “Everywhere I’ve been there are fabulous parents. And why we’re not enlisting them…I just don’t know.” As I reflect back on this conversation now, I see how central this message is in Dinah’s work at First Teacher around not only empowering parents but also recognizing parents’ own strengths and resourcefulness.

Leadership Summit: Connecting Visions to Goals

First Teacher’s parent-informed, community-driven approach was certainly apparent in their 90-Day Challenge work that came out of the Vital Village Leadership Summit this past October. Dinah and parent leaders Maritza Ortiz Bennett and Nikole Huertas came to the Leadership Summit with a goal of starting First Teacher home visits, a project that their team had been meaning to do for a while but were having trouble beginning.

After the Summit, however, First Teacher’s 90-Day Challenge began to take a different direction. At the Leadership Summit, work groups had the opportunity to discuss and think about goals in relation to their bigger visions and the heart-set and mindset in the work they do. These discussions led Maritza, Nikole and Dinah back to the parent leaders and ultimately allowed them to begin the conversation on why their team had been avoiding starting home visits.

Dinah at the Leadership Summit, by Ann Wang

Dinah at the Leadership Summit, by Ann Wang

“Home visits didn’t feel right to us and being at the Leadership Summit made us think about the reasons why we hadn’t started these in the first place…[This] led us to ask parents themselves about what they really needed. We decided a lot of the vision of First Teacher was to build community,” Dinah recalled from the earlier conversations their team had after the Summit.

Parent-Engaged Design Process

At this point in their 90-Day Challenge, First Teacher again recognized the importance of parent leadership in their collaborative design approach. Dinah, Nikole, and Maritza got together with parents to get their ideas about home visits. Through these discussions, it came out that home visits might not actually be the most ideal way to outreach and engage parents since so many other organizations did home visits, a format that felt more structured and clinical.

Ultimately, First Teacher’s discussions with parents illuminated the idea of doing play-dates. These play-dates would provide opportunities where multiple families could come together, talk, and learn from each other about important parenting skills in a fun, engaging way. Dinah described how this idea of play-dates “felt less clinical and more community building,” going back to First Teacher’s greater vision. Furthermore, all the topics and themes, such as “transitions” and “sharing,” came from the parents’ own suggestions.

Leadership Summit Tools: In Action

After the Leadership Summit, Maritza, Dinah and Nikole returned to First Teacher and made sure to share valuable tools from the Summit with the rest of the Parent Leaders working with First Teacher. The tools they found most helpful were incorporating Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles and tracking improvements using data. First Teacher now uses PDSA cycles to drive forward changes and modifications in their approach to recruitment. They are also documenting every action step they did during their recruitment efforts and documenting the outcomes of those efforts in order to track improvement.

The work that First Teacher has done through their 90-Day Challenge truly exemplifies what we hoped to accomplish at the Leadership Summit – creating a space and providing tools that would allow our partners to jumpstart their projects and more effectively move forward in their work.

Furthermore, during the School Readiness Roundtable meeting at DSNI last month, I also witnessed the Summit’s tools being shared among partners and used collaboratively. Dinah and Josette Williams, Vital Village Community Partnership President and the Program Manager of Countdown to Kindergarten, brought a modified version of the PDSA cycle from the Leadership Summit to share with the Roundtable in order to propel this group’s own initiatives. Seeing this openness and collaboration among our partners around sharing and utilizing these common tools highlights what the Network is all about. We are inspired to see our partners share resources to innovate and truly be better together.

Josette Williams at the 90-Day Challenge Celebration, photo by Ann Wang

Posted In: Peer to Peer Advocacy