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Yolanda Eddins: Detroit’s Parent Network: From homework kits to a library

Yolanda EddinsWouldn’t it be nice if every community had an organization that pulled out all the stops to support local parents and education, including youth literacy? Since Detroit is a shining example of a city with just such an entity, we chose this month to interview Yolanda Eddins, Senior Director of Parent Development and Training at the Detroit Parent Network (detroitparentnetwork.org). Founded in 2002, the DPN aims to “transform parents to make Detroit a better place to raise and educate children.”
Eddins is also a training consultant who offers inspiration, motivation and teambuilding to private and public corporations. She has facilitated conferences and training sessions as a teacher and motivational speaker, working with corporations, nonprofit agencies, the private and public school systems and child welfare.

Q: How large is DPN?
A: We have about 2,500 members, who each donate five hours of volunteer time and $5 per year in addition to being connected with tons of resources for adults and children. We touch upwards an average of 25, 000 parents per year. Membership includes an annual summer family fun day that tackles issues around health and fitness as they sit around a big family picnic. Also, some really cool things like financial literacy training and traditional knowledge on raising children. We also have a parent leadership conference with experts from all over who talk about topics relevant to parents, around both education and family stability. This year because so many people are unemployed, we had speakers addressing entrepreneurship and how you come up with an emergency plan. We have events where members bring their children for book activities, and maybe read to them.

Q: How many parents and community members do you help per year?
A: We have parent resource centers located in elementary, middle and high schools. About 10,000 parents go through them a year. Last year, 36,000 parents visited the Parent Resource Centers. We do a lot of educational workshops and forums in the community, working with parents to train them as leaders. We help them achieve their goals and assist with their children’s goals and tasks.

Q: What are some typical problems or concerns you find parents have?
A: Finding public schools within walking distance for their son or daughter after a school has closed down, arranging for all the kids to go to one school for convenience and figuring out transportation. Those tend to come up a lot. Then there’s housing and instability in the homes. We make sure we keep education in the forefront. It’s okay for parents to have issues and challenges and barriers they have to work through, but at the end of the day, they still have to be that “nagger,” the parent who makes it a priority to go to a parent-teacher conference or to tackle challenges such as housing.

We’ve also introduced “homework makeovers,” which families can win based on participation and randomly-drawn names. Homework makeovers come in three forms. One involves identifying a spot at home where the kids will do their homework. I have children myself and a lot of times kids will say, “I don’t have such-and-such, so I can’t do my homework.” So the makeover helps parents establish a homework corner: a corner of a dining room, bedroom or living room, perhaps one to which kids are typically drawn. We “do over” that area and leave a “stationery kit” of supplies there so it becomes a defined space that fits and weaves into the children’s natural lives. They know then that this is where they will do their homework.

Then there’s the “on the go” kit that provides support for parents who have to pick up a lot of kids after school. Maybe some are doing sports so the others find themselves hanging out in the bleachers for a couple of hours and getting home around nine o’clock. This kit helps them do their homework in the bleachers, in the car or wherever. It comes with a clipboard, night light, lap desk and everything else they need to do their homework on the go.

And then you have your “in-between kit,” which works for families that might be sharing space with somebody after losing their home. In the temporary space, perhaps they can’t access all their stuff; most of it is in storage. The in-between kit is made to slide under a bed for the time that the kids are allowed to have identified space. It’s mobile so you can leave it there for when you come in and do your homework, without it being intrusive to the space that has been allotted to a family that is sharing.

These homework kits are a really big deal, because that’s where a lot of folks drop the ball. Often, parents are doing the work they need to do to get the kids to school, and teachers are doing their part, but when it comes to getting homework done, parents are tired and stressed out, and the kids are not always motivated. This can change when you have the venue and materials to keep everybody on track.

Q: What are some of the primary reasons kids underachieve?
A: Lack of consistency or stability. Too often, there are neither parents nor teachers who are actually looking at a student and asking, “How are you doing? Have you got the supplies you need to accomplish your goals?” We address a lot of these things in parent resource center workshops. We also remind parents to establish a pattern that makes sure that no matter what is going on in the child’s life, they’re reading on a regular basis. There are ways to weave that into a family’s daily life so that it doesn’t feel like homework; it’s just a part of what they do.

Q: What else do you offer parents?
A: We’ve discovered that parents are better able to help their children read if they can read themselves. So we offer a peer program in which parents with challenges can come and sit in on reading sessions as volunteers, while also learning. So there’s no confronting. Children don’t necessarily know that their parents are having challenges. They just know that the whole family supports their need to read and grow together.

Q: Has DPN helped other communities start up such activities?
A: Yes. We have relationships and partnerships with school districts in Michigan, and have been approached by communities in Ohio and Chicago. People who approach us are trying to define what pieces of our program they want, almost like a business plan they want to bring to their community. Parent leaders sometimes visit here, or we see them in a conference and schedule some meeting time with them. Then they take it back to their groups and it goes into a defined stage.

Q: Wouldn’t it be nice if every city had parent support systems?
A: Yes, especially the parent resource centers, because some neighborhoods don’t have areas that offer a good safe place where parents can get their minds together and have coffee. We have books they can check out and a computer area, because a lot of employers want people to apply on-line. We also have English-as-a-second-language training, General Equivalency Diploma classes and a childcare center (so if they have little people who aren’t school-age with them, there’s no barrier). We talk about filling in those shaded areas that bring value to the adults so that they can be better parents.

Q: How are you funded?
A: We have contracts with several school districts and nonprofit organizations, and we receive grants from foundations and corporations, including The Skillman Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

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