By Khadijah Ali-Coleman
“While the economic outlook remains bleak, [the Prince George’s County Public Schools] budget will maintain the core instructional programs and services needed to support teaching and learning ...,” county Schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. wrote to school board Chairwoman Verjeana M. Jacobs in a letter of proposed budget cuts for the 2011-2012 school year.
The letter, sent last year as the new school board members were sworn in and local residents were winding down for the holidays, was given minimal attention -- aside from a few local media outlets and bloggers.
Yet, Laurel resident Mike Robinson, a self-appointed advocate for county parents and students, immediately picked up the story.
“This is big news,” he recalled.
Robinson not only posted the letter on his Parental Engagement with PGCPS blog, he began researching and posting the strides that parents in other states are taking to make schools better for their children.
In California, for instance, there's the controversial "Parent Trigger" Law instated last year. Under the state law, school districts must take drastic actions to overhaul schools if parents petition for the change. The changes could include firing school staffers, hiring new administrators or reopening as a charter school.
“Parents in [the Prince George’s County school] system have lost avenues to become engaged,” Robinson wrote on his blog. “Parents have seen doors closed in their faces. Attempts to silence their voices have reached epic proportions ranging from the loss of Parent Liaisons to the elimination of parental engagement programs and services.”
Robinson, father of two daughters in the school system, is the former Coordinating Supervisor for Parental Engagement and Community Outreach for Prince George’s County Public Schools. Although he was laid off last summer due to budget cuts, Robinson wanted an active network among parents with children in county schools.
The school system has not refilled Robinson's position or developed a similar position.
“There is absolutely no one at my daughter’s school who makes dealing with parents a priority,” said Lisa, a Fort Washington resident who declined to give her last name.
Lisa's daughter attends Avalon Elementary School in Temple Hills. “I enjoy Mike Robinson’s blog because he gives you tips on navigating the system and answers questions that even the staff at my daughter’s school either don’t have or don’t want to give," Lisa said.
Robinson hosts a weekly radio show podcast and maintains an active community of more than 400 parents. As he puts it, he wants to bridge a widening communication gap between parents and school system administrators.
“I just want to see that we are helping to build high-performance schools," Robinson said. "I work with an organization that works in the foster care system. I find the energy and find the time. It’s my passion."
For Robinson and his wife, the first priority is to provide a "better life" for their two daughters -- aged 5 and 15.
And, after learning that Prince George’s County schools are some of the lowest performing in Maryland, Robinson is clear that parental advocacy is key in helping students excel academically.
“For too long, parents get information spoon fed or at the last minute,” Robinson said. “I try to approach my role from the perspective of a parent. What would I want to know? Even if it’s not germane to me, it may be something that may relate to a neighbor."
And the information Robinson shares is of interest to most parents. He profiles on his blog interviews with parents actively engaged in the schools — such as Eileen Collins, president of the Laurel Elementary School PTA, and area activist Nakia Troi Ngwala, a local advocate for universal Pre-K, who became invested in county schools when she was barred from enrolling her young son in pre-K because of income restrictions.
Robinson informs parents of news that they may not know unless visiting the county’s website, as well as commentary from national education leaders who speak on trends in education ranging from technology to school choice.
“I had an opportunity recently to interview Dr. Mavis Sanders, author of Principals Matter: A Guide to School, Family, and Community Partnerships,” Robinson said. "And, she said that when you have school systems who want parental engagement, they will have it. When a school system doesn’t have it, then they don’t want it. You don’t make it difficult for contact. You don’t make it difficult for your consumers to find you. We just have lip service here in PG County schools.”
To learn more about Mike Robinson’s efforts to support parent advocacy in Prince George’s County, visit him at Parental Engagement with PGCPS.