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Not your mother’s PTA meeting

Dance music throbbed as parents took in the red, black and silver decor at Apostrophe Lounge in Charlotte. They helped themselves to wings, fish, iced tea and lemonade before settling in for a briefing on getting their kids into summer reading programs and making sure their concerns about schools are heard.

“I like doing this,” said Natasha Hemphill, mother of a sixth-grader at Ranson Middle School. “It’s fun. I’m a parent and I work a lot.”

Welcome to The Pulse, the latest and most creative twist in Project LIFT’s quest to get families engaged in education.

By using popular radio personalities to invite parents to such events as a Tyler Perry movie, a Zumba class and Thursday’s get-together at the South End club, organizers hope to connect with young, busy parents who might not attend a traditional sit-down-and-talk meeting.

“We’re moving forward with our branding model of ‘We’re different and we like it,’ ” said community engagement coordinator Denada Jackson.

Through LIFT, donors have pledged $55 million for a five-year quest to boost graduation rates and student achievement at West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools, which serve about 7,250 students. Most of the money goes toward faculty, technology and additional learning time for students.

But LIFT, for Leadership and Investment for Transformation, also sees family engagement as a key to student success.

Most students come from low-income homes, and turnout for PTA meetings and information sessions tends to be low. Many schools face challenges keeping current contact information for parents.

Jackson said LIFT organizers decided to focus on texting, the most reliable means of communicating with young adults.

Notes sent home with students can get lost. Emails often get overlooked. But Jackson says studies have shown 95 percent of text messages are opened. “People have their phones with them all the time,” Jackson said.

The Pulse events start with the same kind of automated calls that announce other school happenings — but with a twist. LIFT has enlisted popular radio personalities — No Limit Larry and Yasmin Young from Power 98, Olympia Dukes and Fly Ty from Old School 105.3 and Christopher Gray from Praise 100.9/92.7 — to record the invitations and host the events.

To claim the free tickets, parents have to text a LIFT number. Staffers call back to offer details — and to ask about how schools can better serve them and their children.

They’ve heard, for instance, that parent meetings need to happen after 6:30 p.m. to avoid work conflicts, and that transportation can be a problem.

Fun events are coupled with serious talks.

About 90 parents saw Tyler Perry’s “Temptation,” then took part in a discussion about love and relationships. Those who attended a Zumba dance/workout class at West Charlotte recreation center also got a blood pressure screening and other health information.

At the Apostrophe get-together, LIFT staffer Christian Friend asked which families have students at Bruns, Byers, Druid Hills or Thomasboro. “Have y’all heard about the calendar change?” he asked.

Students at those schools will return in July, in an effort to eliminate the skill slippage that often comes with a long summer break. With everyone else in CMS going back in late August, LIFT officials plan lots of reminders to make sure students don’t show up a month late.

That’s one of the reasons they’re so eager to get numbers for text messages.

Friend said LIFT is offering a free six-week summer reading program for students at the other schools. He urged parents to ask their principals whether their kids might be eligible.

Jackson urged parents to talk to her and other LIFT staff about any questions and concerns: “If something is wrong, holler at us.”

And “No Limit” Larry Mims, himself a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parent, gave a short pep talk about the importance of helping kids learn. “Your income doesn’t determine your outcome,” he said, “but your input does determine your output.”

The final session in May will be a get-together at a Christian club. The goal, Jackson said, is to try a range of settings where different families feel comfortable.

All the sessions include information about services for students and families. They also remind parents of the LIFT “90-90-90” goal — turning schools that are roughly 90 percent poor and minority, traditionally a predictor of low performance, into schools with 90 percent of students on grade level and 90 percent graduating on time.

The callbacks are building a database of cellphone numbers.

Jackson said the initial goal was to get 500 new numbers; halfway through they’d added more than 900. They hope the buzz about fun events inspires families to keep their contact information up-to-date.

Coleene Davis, who has two children at West Charlotte, attended Thursday’s event with daughter Sierra Jackson, a 2011 graduate who’s now studying at Central Piedmont Community College.

Both women said they see West Charlotte changing for the better, and they like the attempt to make parents a part of it. Davis said she attends PTA meetings, but most parents don’t.

“Some of the parents that come to these things you’ll never see at school,” she said. “A lot of these children are so lost.”

Jackson would not say how much LIFT is spending on The Pulse.

She and Denise Watts, the head of LIFT, acknowledge that some eyebrows will raise at the notion of trying to improve education by entertaining parents. But they say it’s essential to meet today’s families where they are, rather than lamenting when they don’t show up for traditional meetings.

“The whole purpose of Project LIFT when it started was to try some things differently,” Watts added. “This is an opportunity to do that.”

While turnout for Thursday’s gathering was light, the message seemed to be embraced. Parents peppered staff with questions about summer reading and educational technology.

When Hemphill was asked whether LIFT will help her daughter graduate, she didn’t hesitate.

“It’s up to her,” Hemphill said, “and it’s up to me.”

Helms: 704-358-5033 Twitter: @anndosshelms
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