Engaging families to work in partnership with schools and communities improves the chances for student success in school, and throughout their lives. Family engagement promotes student equity, which is crucial to the nation’s increasingly diverse student body.
Involving families in their students’ education in a meaningful way can be challenging for state agencies and school districts that are looking to simply meet a “family engagement” requirement.
By reframing how staff thinks about family engagement and infusing guiding principles throughout health and education systems, families can be partners in their students’ education and well-being.
Whether Josh Jaime and his 17-year-old son, Solomon, are in the car, jogging around Kensington Metropark or powering through strawberry waffles at IHOP, they always end up talking sports.
It’s usually recapping the recent Detroit Tigers game or running through stats for Tigers catcher Brian McCann, Solomon’s favorite player. But occasionally there are deeper topics — like when Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punched his then-fiancée into unconsciousness in an Atlantic City casino elevator.
“We’ll take those examples and we’ve turned them over into conversations we can have about sex,” says Jaime, a single dad from Novi, Michigan. “(And topics like) drinking and how to treat a woman. To him, it’s very relevant. He follows baseball, he follows football, these are his heroes. (I tell him) ‘This is the way you wanna be and this is the way you don’t wanna be. If you are this way, this is what the consequences are.'”
Jaime wasn’t always so comfortable bringing up sex and healthy relationships — despite a deep parental desire to do so. But thanks to some training and parent education through his local school district in Michigan, he’s now got solid information and said he feels empowered to talk, and keep talking, about these crucial topics — blending them almost seamlessly into the regular conversational cadence of life.
Josh Jaime and his son, Solomon, 17, take in a Detroit Tigers baseball game at Comerica Park in downtown Detroit. | Provided by Josh Jaime
As a parent, he sees himself as his son’s first and most important educator, but appreciates the backup Solomon gets from high school sex ed classes and rejects the idea that parents and schools have to be at odds over this topic.
His stance is echoed by many experts who believe that when the topic of sex ed devolves into an argument over ideological approaches — abstinence-based versus comprehensive sex ed — it overlooks the most powerful factor in any school’s sex ed curricula: parental involvement.
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Parents can be a powerful force, but only if they have information, connections and encouragement — like specifics about curriculum options and the needs of kids in their local school, relationships with schoolteachers and other parents and a sense that their voice matters.
“Sex education programs may give information, but attitudes, beliefs, values and modeled behaviors often take place elsewhere, (like in) the family,” says Kim Miller, senior adviser for youth prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Center for Global Health.
“In a perfect world,” Miller continues, “we would better equip parents and caregivers to support lifelong sexuality education — that begins in the home and embraces the values and beliefs of the family.”
Putting parents first
When teens were asked in a national poll who most influences their decisions about sex, 52 percent of 12 to 15-year-olds said it was their parents. Only 1 percent said teachers and educators.
For the 16- to 19-year-olds, 32 percent said parents’ voices were the most important, with friends coming in close behind at 28 percent. Only 3 percent said teachers were most influential for their sex-related decisions, according to the survey by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
“Parents are the primary, we are the secondary,” says Samantha Bushman, CEO of the nonprofit “Talk, the New Sex Ed,” which she calls an alternative approach to sexuality education. She wants to stop the polarized discourse around the topic and return parents to the leading, but supported, role as sexuality educators for their children.
“Parents spend 18 years with them, so as an educator, my responsibility and my duty is to support and empower parents,” she says. “I always defer to the parents, they’re the best experts on their kids.”
But parents don’t feel like experts, especially when it comes to talking about sex, Bushman says. So the Pittsburgh program starts by working with parents in an after-school setting, giving them a conversational framework and assuring them that talking about sex won’t encourage risky behavior. From there, trained “near-peer” educators facilitate classroom discussions with teens and teach decision-making and critical-thinking skills that go beyond rote memorization.
A growing number of programs are working to involve parents more by offering homework assignments and activities for teens and their parents throughout the curricula, knowing that an ongoing, years-long conversation at home will be much more impactful than a dozen hours at school.
In the comprehensive sex ed program “Get Real,” each classroom lesson is followed with a family homework assignment, which allows parents to see what was taught and add their own family values. The relationship-focused sex ed programs “Love Notes” and “Relationship Smarts PLUS” do similar things, with parent/teen connection activities that provide parents with talking ideas and even specific words to use.
By making sex ed a team effort, Bushman hopes parents and teens will focus their conversations on issues like: What age should I start dating? What does a good relationship partner look like? When is sex appropriate and not appropriate?
Then topics like basic anatomy, puberty, sexually transmitted disease testing — can be discussed in classes with trained professionals, a division kids already seem to prefer, Bushman says.
Schools involving parents
Yet, if parents aren’t OK with certain information coming from the school, they should have the right to opt their child out and tackle that side themselves, many advocates and educators say.
“(Parents) absolutely rule,” says Barb Flis, founder of Parent Action for Healthy Kids. “If they don’t want their kids to participate, that’s OK, thanks for telling me that. I’m not going to judge.”
For the last decade, Flis has worked with hundreds of school districts in Michigan to increase connection between parents, communities and schools on important health issues like sex ed, school nurses, physical activity and nutrition. She’s also in the business of breaking down stereotypes, like the ones that say parents aren’t interested, won’t participate or are even adversarial toward school initiatives, particularly sex ed classes.
As someone who became involved as an interested parent, Flis knows many parents want to be involved, but along with their busy schedules, just lack a foundation.
Most schools, including those in Utah, approach sex ed by sending out letters informing parents of the approaching course and requiring a signature before kids can be taught. Letters also often invite parents to “come look at the curriculum” if they’d like.
Most parents don’t “go look” because that invitation is akin to handing Flis a stack of documents describing different mortgage options and saying, “pick the best one for your home.”
“I’m not in the mortgage business,” she says. “I need it translated into a language that I can understand — what does it mean for me as a homebuyer? It’s no different with any kind of curricula, especially sex ed curricula, which is very personal. How are you translating what you are doing in the classroom into something that I can understand as a parent? Then, at that point, I can decide if this is something I want for my child.”
Flis works to improve communication around this topic by working with school districts and their sex ed advisory committees, as well as with parents through her “Talk Early & Talk Often” workshops, and has even done day-long Saturday events where parents came, had potential curricula presented by teachers, heard from a panel of teens about the issues they face in school, and talked with other parents about potential concerns and questions.
In all of her work, she relies on data from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, or YRBS, which monitors health risk behaviors, including sexual behaviors, in young adults across the country. Flis says those figures help parents and educators use facts, instead of emotions or perceptions, when discussing the challenges teens face and what should be done to help them.
Flis has found that once parents understand what their teens need, and what effective programs really include (or don’t) they move beyond assumptions or decades-old experiences and become the biggest supporters.
And when the parents and schools are on the same page, they can choose the best evidence-based program for their community.
In Utah, state law requires that teachers use an abstinence-based curricula, which conveys a strong message of abstinence but allows for some discussion of contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. Of the 41 school districts in the state, only Canyons, Jordan and Provo districts have chosen a more limited abstinence-only approach, as each district has the freedom to decide, under state law, how they want to teach human sexuality, said Linda Mayne, health specialist for the Utah State Board of Education.
Utah’s law also forbids teaching in four categories: the intricacies of intercourse, sexual stimulation, erotic behavior, etc. 2. The advocacy of homosexuality. 3. The advocacy or encouragement of the use of contraceptive methods. 4. The advocacy of sexual relations outside of marriage or sexual promiscuity.
Worried that current law might confuse providing information with advocating, in January Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, will reintroduce a bill that would allow districts and parents in the state to choose a comprehensive sex ed curricula instead of an abstinence-based program. The bill would continue the policy of parental permission for students to attend the class but would give parents the option to give their child an expanded curriculum.
However, even using the term “comprehensive sex ed” may stir up unnecessary controversy, King said, because he’s much more concerned about increasing the teaching as it relates to healthy relationships, not just biological or anatomical facts.
“I want to talk … about how sexual relationships are multifaceted,” says King, “in a way that will cause thoughtful kids — and when taught the right way they will be thoughtful — to say, ‘You know what? Maybe instead of initiating with this person, I’m going to wait. And the reason I’m going to wait is I’m better educated and I understand more how significant this is, rather than just a lark in the back seat of my dad’s car.'”
Clemens Wittekind has always been an involved parent, eager to know what’s going on with his kids’ education.
So when his daughter and son reached elementary school, he started to ask other parents about the school’s approach to relationship education and whether they thought it was enough.
Wittekind knows these conversations aren’t easy, so he would break the ice by asking other parents about how their teens reacted to that scene in a popular movie, or how parents manage kids’ media time, or when they let their kids date.
Wittekind’s drive to get answers landed him on the PTA and later on a sex ed advisory committee at the district level in Michigan, where he helped choose a local curriculum.
“School districts want that,” said Wittekind, who now lives in Atlanta and whose children are 24 and 21. “They want parents who care. There are so many sex ed teachers that crave parent involvement in this and that’s what we need. That’s how it gets to be better for everybody, when people get beyond just speculating about what the district is doing, and digging in, finding out and getting involved.”
Not every parent needs to serve on a district board or be heavily involved in the PTA, he says. (His wife chose to serve in other ways.) But he believes that every parent should stay engaged in their child’s learning, because as parents, they are the first and best educator, no matter their child’s age or grade.
“One of the biggest things that parents have to bring to the table, what schools can’t, is moral issues,” said Wittekind. “This is where parents need to step up. You want your child to feel and know and have a little voice in their head about how you as a parent feel about this.”
“Nobody is an expert at this,” he added with a laugh. “You have a lot of people with whom you have that in common.”
Schools are unique environments where people with a variety of experiences, opinions and backgrounds join together with a common goal of helping raise strong, resilient kids. When parents are willing to engage in open-minded conversations with people they don’t know well or may even disagree with, and then work past the discomfort they feel, it’s a “huge step forward,” Wittekind says.
Those conversations push the discussion beyond “abstinence” or “comprehensive sex ed” paradigms, (or maybe even start a discussion for the first time) and help parents really talk about what they want for their children, and what program would work best for their school community.
“With sensitive subjects like this, it’s amazing how many people start opening up, and you make connections,” Wittekind says, “especially when there’s sometimes painful things involved. You start sharing, you create deeper connections. That’s what life is about. That’s what makes our life richer.”
Wayne State alumni are making a difference in their community through their work and volunteer activities.
ALUMNI .WAYNE .EDU SEPTEMBER 2012 | 13
“Reaching parents is my niche. It doesn’t seem hard to me, yet it is so stifling
to other people.”
When former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm wanted to launch a pregnancy prevention
initiative for middle school-age children, her staff reached out to the Michigan Department
of Education and Michigan Department of Community Health. However, when it was decided
that someone on the task force should represent parents, staffers sent out the call to an
unassuming home in Farmington Hills.
“You’ve got to have Barb Flis,” they told the governor.
At the time, Flis (“rhymes with ‘bliss,’” she says with a laugh), who went on to establish
the organization Parent Action for Healthy Kids and become one of America’s leading advocates
for health and sex education in schools, wasn’t sure she wanted to be gotten.
“There I am, going to the governor’s office and meeting with her assistants,” she remembers.
“I’m thinking, ‘You can’t possibly want me.’ And they’re asking, ‘Is this something you
would like to do?’ I’m like, ‘Whoa!’
“So I come home and say to my oldest daughter, ‘Julie, I don’t know. This is big and she’s
the governor. One slip on this sex education stuff and she could be mud.’ Julie goes, ‘Mom!
Do us a favor and just take it! Because if you don’t, we’ll have to hear about how the person
they appoint could have done it better and that’s not how you would have done it. So just
cut to the chase and do it!’”
Flis, Life.Learn ‘02, has listened to her two daughters since they were schoolchildren
because she considers herself a mother above all. (Both grown, Julie lives in Royal Oak; Mary
teaches dance in Chicago.) But heeding their words and dedicating herself to their learning
environment frequently thrust Flis into situations far outside her comfort zone. She credits
— and praises — the interdisciplinary studies degree from Wayne State she earned as an
adult for helping her transform her commitment into a career while handling whatever challenges
it presents — even a call for advice from First Lady Michelle Obama.
“My daughters certainly played a part in my doing this work, but taking to this level, I
never could have dreamed it, charted it or set it as a goal,” says Flis, who receives federal
funding from agencies like the CDC to develop programs aimed at helping parents improve
kids’ health. “If you’re listening, the universe directs you to where you should go. I was
definitely directed to the (Wayne State) program because I’m an out-of-the-box thinker. I
felt so odd because of that, then I went to a program that encouraged it. It’s interdisciplinary
studies, and that’s what I do now.
“I work with parents and connect them, with schools and other parents. Because I got
so involved in Northville, I saw what schools had to go through, how parents felt, and I saw
the disconnect. It wasn’t intentional, but they weren’t putting themselves in each other’s
shoes. You have to be an interdisciplinarian to do that.”
Laurie Bechhofer, HIV education consultant for the Michigan Department of Health, says
Flis is passionate about improving the health and well-being of Michigan young people.
“She sees parents as true partners to engage, not just tacitly involve, in change,” Bechhofer
says. “She gets how to connect with people and inspire them to take action.”
Born in Detroit, Flis felt she “didn’t get the best education at all” in the private Catholic
schools she attended. “I wanted my children to get what I didn’t have, so I became really
involved in their education.”
She raised her daughters in suburban Northville, primarily because of its school system, and
became so invested as a volunteer that she was elected PTA president.
Even so, equipped at the time with only a two-year degree earned in the ‘70s from an area
community college, “I always felt everybody knew more than I did,” Flis admits. “I felt I didn’t
have an education. So I just kind of sat back. I was a silent observer.”
However, when a parent came to her and accused the school system of “hypnotizing” students
with its health education program, her one-woman investigation went from the principal
to the district curriculum director to a seat on the school board committee looking into the
coursework. From that point on, Flis became an energetic representative for parents.
“I’m sitting with people who have Ph.D.s and I knew nothing about curriculum, let alone
health education,” she recalls. “I think I felt so strongly about advocating for kids that I overcame
my fear of not feeling smart or confident enough to serve.
“I didn’t realize until I went back to school at Wayne State that I am a lifelong learner, and
I ask a lot of questions,” says Flis, who was active on Student Council and president of the
College of Lifelong Learning Student Senate despite being in her 40s. “I didn’t know that about
myself then. I’ll never forget my first class with Professor Roz Schindler, Introduction to Interdisciplinary
Studies. I can still feel the fear I had. I was so nervous. But once I started taking
classes, all of a sudden I realized that this odd person I felt that I was, always asking questions,
was actually embraced by these professors. They’re going, ‘Gosh, you ask good questions! Keep
asking them.’ So I know that now. Now I don’t care if it’s a stupid question. I ask it.”
She had a slew of questions last year when the White House came calling for guidance. Mrs.
Obama wanted input on the parent portion of her “Let’s Move” website to help end childhood
“You’ve got to have Barb Flis,” somebody at the CDC told her team. It was a bittersweet
acknowledgment: the same week she was flown to Washington, her father, Frank Patak, who led
the construction crews that enclosed Northland and Eastland malls, passed away.
“Several months later when they released the website I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, they actually
listened!’” Flis marvels. “I said, make it easy for parents, they need answers quickly, and take
away any language that is shaming or blaming. When our babies are born we automatically feel
inadequate as parents. We don’t need anybody else judging us.”
Flis continues to support “Let’s Move” on her own website, parentactionforhealthykids.org.
“Everybody throws up their hands and says, ‘What can we do?’ How can we reach parents?’” she
says. “They say when you have a business you need a niche. Well, reaching parents is my niche.
It doesn’t seem hard to me, yet it is so stifling to other people.
“Then we have to work with schools to not get defensive when parents ask them questions.
It’s always both sides. We can both be teacher-learners.”
— Jim McFarlin
Michigan Mom Barb Flis was one of 10 parents nation-wide invited to the White House to help Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, designed to reduce childhood obesity and raise a healthier generation of children.
The Farmington Hills mother of two daughters has since launched her own grassroots initiative, Parent Action for Healthy Kids.
Barb Flis makes changes in health education at a state and national level
A lifelong resident of Detroit, Barb Flis does not take her citizenship lightly. Known statewide in schools and communities as “the parent voice” for health education, she is an example of grassroots work at its finest. And simplest, because for Barb, her career is a self-proclaimed example of “doing what you love and everything falls into place.”
In this case, Barb loves people and working with them. Her career began in sales, where she was never happy with the work, but always loved the people. She was volunteering as PTA President when health education first caught her attention and jumpstarted a new career. Speaking out
In the late 1980s, the Michigan Health Model rolled out and schools began to administer health classes for the first time. A group of vocal parents felt undermined by the health curricula and wanted the classes to cease altogether. Her first foray into politics, Barb “took a stand on the issue and became the voice for all the parents who were in support of the classes.” The debate went to Lansing and so did Barb. For the first time ever, she spoke in front of the Board of Education, who was so impressed by her gumption that they asked her to serve on the state level PTA.
After her first trip to Lansing, Barb was called back again and again to fulfill a role that she now sees as her niche market: to be the voice of parents. She became the parent representative at the Department of Education on HIV and Sexual Education. Barb describes her role as a “parent shortcut.” She takes issues that are important to parents, like sexual health, mental health, and nutrition, and translates the language into something personal and meaningful to parents. She began to develop workshops and travel between cities helping parents, teachers, and principals understand and communicate to their kids about the importance of healthy choices.
Throughout all this, Barb was still working in sales but, at the age of 48, decided to return to school and remedy her lack of a Bachelor’s degree. “I had to be an interdisciplinarian,” says Barb. “I was working double duty and it was the best time in my life.” After graduation, she went directly to graduate school and is currently finishing her thesis, which will pair the history of Sex Ed laws in Michigan with the socio-political climates in which they were written and implemented.
In the last 5 years, Barb has worked with Governor Granholm on a teen pregnancy prevention initiative, “Talk Early & Talk Often℠.” She is a parent liaison and leader in the Surgeon General’s Michigan Steps Up Campaign, and the Wellness Policy campaign to improve local initiatives on issues of nutrition and health in schools. She still administers all the workshops herself under her organization Parent Action For Healthy Kids, traveling all over the state and the country.
“In our workshops, it’s an issue of spray and pray,” says Barb. Her dedication guides her into personal relationships with many of the parents she meets. After a workshop she encourages parents to follow up with her
Her grassroots work has proven successful not only for the parents she’s helped but for her own career. This year, Barb was invited to Washington D.C. to be the parent voice in Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” Campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation. After a meeting of some of Health Education’s most intelligent minds, Barb came home and said to herself, “why don’t I start a local campaign on this issue?” As if she didn’t have enough on her plate, she’s started a Call To Action —another support network for parents to learn about and echange ideas on nutrition and health in schools.
“Like everything else that has happened in the last ten years, if I have an idea, why wouldn’t I try? What do I have to lose? At the very least, I’ll educate some parents.” And that’s exactly was she does. Enables, empowers, supports, educates and inspires people all along her journey. And, as the sole employee of her own organization and an all around incredibly busy woman, the best part according to Barb is that “it just doesn’t feel like work.”
Activist turns from sex ed to food ed for White House By Laura Berman
It says something about these times in which we live that the state of Michigan’s go-to sex educator is turning her thoughts, and expertise, to another area that excites passions and desire: food.
Sex and food have much in common, says Barb Flis, including this central key to talking about either one: “You can’t blame them or shame them.”
Her sudden turnabout in subject matter is a direct result of a call from the White House in March, when Flis was summoned to Washington: The first lady’s team wanted to hear her thoughts about getting parents involved in kids eating healthier foods and exercising more.
At that point, Michelle Obama was preparing to roll out her “Let’s Move” program (http://www.letsmove.gov). Flis offered very specific expertise: For a dozen years, she’s been working with parents to help schools devise sex education curriculums. Her forte is defusing the emotion around a sensitive subject and getting people to talk — and to understand the importance of good information, rationally delivered.
What works for sex ought to work for food.
With childhood obesity rates at epidemic proportions, and the first lady campaigning to intervene, Flis opted to help: If her advice was useful to Washington, why not help with the effort, she reasoned.
“The government isn’t going to be able to create change,” says Flis. “Parents are going to have to.”
Now she’s reaching out to activists like Rachael Hilliker, a Lansing-area government worker and mom, who is screening “Two Angry Moms,” in Lansing next month — a documentary about two women who declared war on their local school lunch program and actually created change.
She’s made contact with a couple of Chelsea neophyte gardeners who named their community vegetable gardening effort, undertaken with the help of a master gardener, “Two Dirty Virgins and a Hoe.”
See? There’s that link between food and sex again. “There are a lot of similarities: It’s all about practicing good behaviors, good habits, thinking critically about how you act — or eat,” she says.
And she’s incorporated Obama’s official “Let’s Move” banner into her own website, Parent Action for Healthy Kids.
Flis is working on a statewide survey of parents that will canvas health habits, the state of school lunch programs, and how parents plan meals and snacks.
Activists like Hilliker — who sees herself launching a grass roots effort to force healthier school lunches — are part of her focus. But after a decade of talking about sex with parents and teens, she believes in the wisdom of a gentle approach.
As an advocate for making good choices, Flis was already a fairly healthy eater. But even she has adopted better habits over the past few months. She stopped eating sweetened low-calorie yogurt, switching to a high protein, unsweetened Greek-style brand.
She kicked the diet soda habit, after reading that artificial sweeteners can cause food cravings. Now she intends to quietly encourage others to change their behavior, in their homes.
Wary of being panned as a “food Nazi” or health nut, Flis is more educator than activist. She’s all in favor of small changes, duly rewarded.
So join the movement: Steam up a batch of broccoli and brown rice, exercise for 30 minutes, and congratulate yourself.
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