This story was produced thanks to a reporting grant facilitated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and funded by New Jersey Children's Foundation.
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Claudia Gallegos wanted to know if her second grader had missed any assignments.
The problem was, she had no idea how to check.
So, Gallegos enrolled in a virtual session the New Brunswick school district hosted for parents like her who sought to better understand how the student information system worked.
Thanks to the crash course in OnCourse, she has no trouble navigating the parent portal and reviewing test scores, checking grades and monitoring her daughter’s progress at Redshaw School.
Parents University - as the school district has dubbed its ongoing educational program - is designed to help Mom and Dad learn everything from how to double tap on a Chromebook touchpad to the finer points of the programs their kids are using to complete their homework during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spearheaded by Superintendent of Schools Aubrey Johnson, Parents University at its essence is an initiative that seeks to educate parents on how the school district is educating the students during the pandemic even as thousands of them are returning for hybrid instruction.
It is also an acknowledgement that bridging the digital divide takes more than just arming the 9,900 or so students in New Brunswick with new Chromebooks, giving them unlimited Wi-Fi and sending them off with an algebra or creative writing assignment.
“First and foremost, I really wanted to know how to look to see if my child was at missing any assignments,” Gallegos said through an interpreter. “I wanted to have access to monitor if my child was behind on any assignments and then, overall, just being more involved with what my child was required to do during virtual instruction.”
Parents University has operated on an intermittent schedule since the district closed its doors to in-person instruction in March 2020. Classes are typically led by someone in the IT department, held in English and Spanish and hosted in the evening to accommodate working parents.
The facilitator will typically share her screen in an attempt to show parents precisely how to use the various programs and platforms their children are using. Parents are allowed to raise their hands and ask questions – just as their children would if they were in the middle of an advanced biology lab.
In one recent session held via Google Meet, parents were taught chapter and verse about Scholastic Literacy Pro, a popular online e-book platform that allows students and their families to search for books by title, author, theme, topic and/or reading level.
Parents University has not only helped traverse a digital divide, it appears to be having a powerful positive psychological effect on the parents, who have found themselves thrust into the role of teacher’s aide at their kitchen tables-turned-classrooms.
A University of Michigan survey of 405 U.S. parents who had at least one child age 12 and under found that half of parents reported feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities to educate their children at home and one in four felt they did not have the resources they needed for at-home education.
And perhaps most alarming of all, two of every five parents met the criteria for major depression and criteria for moderate or severe anxiety.
A Rutgers University report offered parental pandemic survival suggestions from GG Weisenfeld of the National Institute for Early Education Research, including limiting children’s screen times and utilizing virtual museum tours - but no word about what to do when your child can’t get the hang of Flipgrid or Edpuzzles.
The knowledge and know-how gleaned through the Parents University initiative has gone a long way toward allaying those frayed nerves in New Brunswick, Johnson told TAPinto during a March interview.
“I could just tell you from the response from the parents, they are really thankful,” he said. “Based on the feedback that I received from my administration and assistant superintendent (Keira Scussa), who has led this, the parents feel valued. They feel part of the teaching and learning, and just appreciated that they have a better command understanding of what we're doing.”
Knowing how to keep tabs on her daughter’s academic progress has been a big relief for Gallegos, who has built a life in New Brunswick after living in a rural suburb of Mexico City. So was learning that her daughter had not missed any assignments.
“Definitely, I would recommend this workshop and any other workshops made available to our parents,” she said. “Unfortunately, not all countries have access to all the resources that students have in the U.S. So, it's important that we take advantage of all of the resources offered, and that applies to parents as well.”