Here at United Way of Anchorage, we believe that one of the building blocks for success is education, and sometimes that means educating yourself. Before launching Cradle to Career Anchorage, an educational initiative designed to truly support parents and families, we turned to the experts—the parents themselves. A typical meeting had a small group of parents from all different backgrounds come to share their expertise. That night, the gym at Rogers Park Elementary was full of different languages and years of parenting expertise.
Throughout the last school year, the Parent Council meetings were a valuable way to get feedback from parents to help plan for Cradle to Career Anchorage, which we joyfully launched at the end of May. Cradle to Career programs are being designed with feedback from partners and professionals, but especially with the involvement of the parents on our Parent Council, facilitated by United Way of Anchorage and Alaska Public Media, and funded by the Alaska Community Foundation.
As Parent Council member Abi said, “If people are trying to make solutions but don’t know the parent problems, it’s going to fail.” At United Way of Anchorage, we are determined not to fail.
Abi’s wisdom is at the heart of the new approach that Cradle to Career Anchorage and United Way are taking. Instead of focusing solely on academic research to inform our programs, we are moving to a collaborative process involving constant feedback.
We’ve learned a ton from the recent pilot of the Parent Council, and we’re working to integrate these parents directly into Cradle to Career Anchorage. Just that night, the parents were able to give valuable ideas on how to encourage reading that have been integrated into our inaugural Cradle to Career events like our READ UNITED Book Bash.
During the meeting, the discussion naturally centered on the day to day of raising children, especially on how to read more to their young children to prepare them for school and how to help their school-age children love reading. Research shows that achieving third-grade literacy is crucial for kids. When kids achieve third-grade literacy, they transition from learning to read, to reading to learn.
These parents know how to boost early literacy, because they all have worked hard to get their children reading early. Fadwa talked about the challenge of finding the time between work and parenting to go to the library and then read to her kids.
Each of them has direct experience with what works and what doesn’t. Erica’s kids loved the ‘Battle of the Books’ that their school hosted before school, but Abi’s son didn’t participate because at his school he would have to give up his recess to participate. These barriers and considerations are the lessons that United Way of Anchorage is learning and looking out for when designing programs.
During Parent Council meetings, the kids are never far from mind. In fact, they’re just next door, reading about animals and making clay sculptures thanks to free, educational childcare provided by Alaska Public Media.
Childcare and free meals for families that attend is part of the Parent Council’s inclusive design that makes sure any parent can attend, no matter their financial situation, how many kids they have in the house, or anything else. Inclusive design ensures that we get the best feedback from the people that we need it from the most: parents – with a special emphasis on reaching parents who may not have been consulted in the past.
Through these conversations and from the lessons we learned during the 90 by 2020 program, we’re getting back to the basics. Cradle to Career Anchorage was launched based on the observation that so much of a child’s success happens before they even set foot in a school. By focusing on early education building blocks and reaching every single child, we can help them build the skills to succeed inside and outside of school.
To reach every child we need to hear directly from their parents, especially those who might be new to the country, learning English, or from historically marginalized groups. When we hear directly from them about what works and what doesn’t, we can focus our efforts directly on the most difficult issues facing families in Anchorage.
Only by including everyone can we realize our mission to build a community full of strong families, of world-class schools, and accountable, inclusive and equitable programs. This is especially important when it comes to education, where the success of one child is felt throughout the community for years into the future.
At the Parent Council that night, Erica said that part of the reason that she attends these meetings is to learn “how my kids can help others.” This is the community spirit that powers everything we do, and the spirit we hope to channel to make Cradle to Career Anchorage a success for our children. Through meetings like the Parent Council, United Way is also learning how to help others.