The World Comes to Portland

The Portland chapter of Parents for Public Schools® decided to hold a conference for local parents—and it seemed the whole world showed up.

Parents from the city’s highest-price neighborhoods. Working families from the edge of town. Immigrant families living around the area. White. Black. Hispanic. Vietnamese. Somali. Everybody. Everyone who wants good schools for their children came.

It’s held “for parents, by parents,” said Doug Wells, the chairman of the Parents for Public Schools national board of directors and an active Portland parent who attends the conference. The event is a great opportunity “to meet people of different backgrounds” coming together for the same goal, said Wells, father of a seventh-grader in Portland Public Schools.

Since the first Portland parents’ conference 12 years ago, it has grown by leaps and bounds. Planned by Community & Parents for Public Schools (CPPS), the Portland chapter of Parents for Public Schools, the idea may be spreading to other cities. Parents for Public Schools has chapters all across the country, in big cities and small towns—in San Francisco, Cincinnati, Houston, and Truckee-North Tahoe, Calif. and Meridian, Miss.

Wherever parents want the best for their children—anywhere—PPS can thrive.

Nowhere was that more prevalent than at a recent Portland parents’ conference in October 2011, which drew an incredible 300-plus parents and students.

After the second conference in which parents who live outside the Portland Public Schools district itself were invited to the conference, it became clear that CPPS should continue to reach out to parents who live in the several neighboring school districts around the city, said Kathy Couch, a co-chair of the CPPS board.

Couch first got involved in the Portland Public Schools by advocating for more state funding for education. She learned about CPPS and was impressed that its focus wasn’t on funding alone. “They looked beyond funding and looked beyond your own school” to push for improvements in all local public schools, she said. Her son, Jack, is set to graduate from high school in 2013 and wants to study writing and film.

The conference—which as of 2011 involved parents from seven school districts for the second year—features workshops on many different topics, such as how to advocate for a special-needs child; working with schools despite language barriers; how to prepare students for college; how school funding works at the state and local level; a state policy update from the governor’s education advisor; ways to help a middle school-age child in math; and much more, Couch said.

The conference is held at a low cost at a high school in East Portland, convenient for many families, within reach of the city’s easy-to-access bus and light-rail public transportation lines. Volunteers raise money to pay for custodians and for the small fee to use the school building.

Free child care is available. Everyone who attends gets free coffee, breakfast and lunch. Local restaurants and businesses usually donate the food, Wells said.

Workshops are conducted in many different languages in the diverse community. Translators even sat at tables with immigrant families to help them understand what was being discussed in the larger general sessions. One survey showed that 43 percent of those who attended did not speak English as their first language.

The conference helps to give parents “a sense of feeling a part of the school and having the tools … to be involved,” Couch said. “And if the school isn’t really working, how to advocate for your child.”

Partnerships among the school, parent and teacher can pay off in improved learning for students. “It changes things. It raises student achievement,” Couch said. “It strengthens the school system. … We’re really strapped for money (for public schools) in Oregon. With families being a part of it, it makes the system more effective.”

There are challenges in planning such an extensive event. It takes countless hours of volunteer planning and substantial volunteers staff the day of the conference, Wells said. Also, attracting a diverse array of parents takes contacts in various parts of the community and lots of hard work—even visiting families and neighborhoods in person to tell people about it, he added.

Better follow-up with families after the event, to tap their expertise and to get them involved in CPPS and other efforts also would be great, Wells said. There’s a limit to what volunteers can do with the resources they have, he said.

Best of all, the conference helps parents gain the confidence to advocate for better schools and for their own children while contributing to solutions, rather than casting blame, Couch said.

“It helps kids throughout their lives,” she said, to have such engaged families. “It works for everyone.”

Read more examples of our PPS Success Stories