This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
“When you have an opportunity to better yourself and your children, take it,” said Nicola Byfield, as she spoke to her fellow graduates of Parent University.
Byfield was one of dozens of parents who attended the first ever graduation ceremony of the Parent University held at District headquarters Thursday night.
The ceremony honored parents who attended and completed courses throughout the past year with a certificate of completion and a dinner for them to enjoy with their families. Some of the graduates donned white caps and gowns for the occasion, which for many of them was their first graduation experience.
The Parent University is a District initiative that offers free day and evening workshops and classes to parents in subjects ranging from basic math and literacy to parenting seminars on character development and health and wellness.
“Parents are the first and most important teachers for their children,” said Karren Dunkley, deputy chief of the District’s Office of Parent, Family, Community Engagement, and Faith-Based Partnerships.
Dunkley has been in charge of implementing Superintendent Ackerman’s vision for a program that would facilitate greater parental involvement with the educational process, allowing parents to work as partners with the District.
“At Parent University, we wanted to provide parents with the resources and tools to become better teachers and advocates for their children,” Dunkley said.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman gave the keynote address saying that these courses not only allow parents to become more involved in their children’s education, but that they also empower parents to achieve their own academic and personal goals.
“You invest in your children by investing in yourself. I hope this is the beginning of a journey. Learning is a life-long process. Set your goals high,” Ackerman said.
After Ackerman’s message, the university’s two valedictorians, Nicola Byfield and Ekawati Phiong, addressed the graduates. They were selected for completing over 10 classes at the university with a perfect attendance record. Both recounted the difficulties they faced as immigrant parents and expressed gratitude to Ackerman and Parent University for working with them to design a program that would best serve their needs.
“Parent University makes every effort to help you. The courses are free, they are held in convenient locations, and they are offered both in the morning and at night. They provide a great opportunity for anyone who is dedicated,” Byfield said.
Dunkley agreed that this effort to establish honest and open partnership is at the heart of the university’s success. According to Dunkley, since its launch in April 2009, Parent University has recorded over 12,000 participants, far exceeding its projected goal of 10,000 by the end of this semester.
Still, Dunkley recognizes areas in the program that have room for improvement, which she plans to address in the upcoming fall semester that starts in October.
First, the University will expand its multilingual programs, offering more courses for parents who speak English as a second language. Dunkley also worked to adjust the pacing of the academic courses to put them in total alignment with the District core curriculum, allowing parents and their children to work through the same material together.
While this kind of specialized curriculum equips parents with the knowledge to help their children with schoolwork, Dunkley said the aim of Parent University extends beyond the classroom.
When Vittorio Cho lost his children in a car accident and found himself responsible for raising his two grandchildren, he turned to Parent University for help.
“I didn’t know how to talk to kids or how to understand their behavior. Now, after taking classes about character building and child psychology, I can communicate with my grandchildren much better,” Cho said.
“I can also use the work I do for my classes as an opportunity to teach them about the importance of hard work and discipline. When my grandson comes home from school, he says he wants to do homework with grandpa. When I see my child doing well, it’s very rewarding.”