Entreprenurial spirit among vulnerable parents

The February 2021 the HundrED community, a meeting point for education innovation, published a call for initiatives that strengthen the link between schools and families. One of the 12 initiatives that were chosen as the most innovative and scalable initiative is a highly entrepreneurial programme called Parent’R’Us that ParENTrepreneurs partner Parents International is a developer and promoter of. It is aiming at building resilience of parents who are generally considered “vulnerable” and who are not average. Entrepreneurially minded parents from those groups that are often considered problematic by school mentor their peers and also the teachers of their children.

Three years ago, a group of 8 organizations from countries across Europe came together with the goal of supporting educational access and learning for children of low-income, minority, and immigrant families. Each had homed in on parent engagement as a principal barrier to student achievement. Additionally, each organization had already enjoyed some level of success in working with parents and/or mentoring schemes, which proved a powerful tool to transform families into learning champions. These partners, which ranged from international non-profits to local schools, noted that this relational approach to family engagement managed to capture and empower parents in diverse contexts—from Roma communities to recently-arrived refugees. This consortium of organizations entered a joint bid for the European Union’s Erasmus+ grant, pledging to distil best practices from their local mentorship experiences and codify an adaptable international model.

Parent‘R’Us, established in 2018, is the culmination of this consortium’s efforts. It aims to support family engagement in education by shifting family, teacher, and school leader mindsets around the value and role of parents. It specifically targets entrenched, negative assumptions about disadvantaged parents: that they are unable or unwilling to support their children’s development. The program operates in 4 different countries; it supports Roma communities in Hungary and Romania, while working with migrant families in Portugal and Spain. It works by training and convening a team of school-based Mentor Managers, Mentors, and Mentees.

Mentor Managers are the key to the program’s success. They are mostly school staff—often teachers—who already deeply know the local community. Managers undergo a process of reflection and training that encourages them to identify their own misunderstandings about parents. Core discussions include how schools often prioritize learning and life goals that devalue community knowledge, precluding parents from sharing their diverse talents like carpentry or cooking. Or how teachers systematically perceive parents of colour as more “aggressive” than their white peers. Managers then identify and train a group of Mentors—parents from disadvantaged backgrounds with local knowledge and confidence navigating the schooling experience. Managers use their community ties to match Mentors with a group of one to three Mentees. These parents are also from disadvantaged backgrounds, but struggle to engage with their children’s education. Mentors and Mentees take charge of their own experience; they collaboratively decide when to meet, and what to discuss. Mentorship sessions often address emergent issues, such as a parent’s discomfort responding to a note home about poor student behaviour. But more fundamentally, this relationship is a process of mindset shift. It seeks to empower parents as confident and assertive partners in children’s learning. Mentors will, for example, dispel notions that parents are incapable educators by asking them, “Who taught your child to walk and talk?” Mentors additionally coach educators on core teacher-parent challenges. They might have teachers put themselves in the shoes of a parent without formal education, who has been asked to support student’s homework without structured support.

Parent’R’Us believes that peer mentorship requires local knowledge and autonomy. Rather than prescribing a global curriculum, it continuously learns from program experiences to develop adaptable best-practice toolkits. During Covid, the program shifted to react to local needs. Initially, the program was designed to occur in neutral safe spaces, like community centres, with free coffee and drinks. Lockdowns led Mentors to re-imagine meetings in accord with local requirements; conversations sprung up in homes, parks, or—as a last resort—online. Emergent issues of distance learning shifted mentorship to help parents assert their right to be a co-curricular ally, rather than their child’s curricular teacher at home.

If you want to try the methodology, you can find most Parent’R’Us resources on this website https://www.parentrus.eu/