The first class was led by local teacher Todd Martin who hosted a workshop on Canvas, an online program parents and guardians use to stay alert on their child’s grades and attendance, in addition to other classroom communication.
Jessica Mendez-Thompson, University for Parents Coordinator and Thomas Harrisonburg Middle School teacher, says that while this was just one topic parents will be learning about this semester, it’s an example of the program’s overall mission: To provide important and engaging information that empowers parents to serve as the primary partner in their child’s education.
Now in its fourth year, UP is made possible through our 21st Century grants, in partnership with the Harrisonburg City Public Schools, and is now offered to all families of students in Thomas Harrison and Skyline Middle Schools, as well as Harrisonburg High School.
The program, which is usually held face-to-face in the public schools, is currently being held online and run through Zoom. While this has required a necessary transition, there are some benefits to this new arrangement, Mendez-Thompson said.
Because of the wonderful diversity found in our schools and the many languages spoken, all UP meetings include interpreters—sometimes, for as many as a half-dozen languages or more.
“The list of languages just keeps growing … and I find it empowering,” Mendez-Thompson said. “And it’s empowering our parents … by creating a safe environment for our families, especially for parents who are new to this country or new to this school system.”
Parents learn in person during a past UP workshop. All UP meetings this year are being hosted on Zoom.
Having interpreters allows UP workshops to be truly open to all families, which is a foundational value of all of our programs at On the Road. By creating a welcoming and inclusive culture, we knew we could better connect with the families of the youth we serve and make sure everyone is getting the support they need.
“We want to make sure that we’re impacting the entire family … not just the student, but the parents as well.”” Deanna Reed, On the Road’s Director of Community and School Partnerships, said.
When Mendez-Thompson took over as coordinator two years ago, she took this foundational belief and pushed to expand UP into the middle schools and begin offering child care for families, so that parents and guardians could be fully present in their learning.
But this inclusive culture is something that makes us, and our community, unique, Mendez-Thompson says.
“That’s who we are as a community, especially here in Harrisonburg,” she said. “Everybody’s involved, everybody’s invited. We’re all in this together.”
This year, UP will offer three rounds of 6-week workshops during the fall, winter, and spring–all through Zoom. Skyline Literacy will be leading English Classes for parents from 10:00-11:00 AM each Saturday, and then the informational workshops follow from 11:15-12:15 pm.
The remaining workshops will be on “School and Community Resources,” “Helping Students Balance School, Work and Extracurricular Activities,” and “Building Resilience in Challenging Times,” as well as a Family Fun workshop.
“The nice thing [about our workshops] is that our presenters are people in our school system,” Mendez-Thompson said of the facilitators. “So we’re really addressing, ‘What do families want to know? What do our parents want to know as a parent?’”
With the workshops being held on Zoom this year, Jessica said she’s opened the meetings to everyone in the family and encourages the parents to sit there next to their kids, which she hopes sparks a conversation within the family.
“I really hope that [these workshops] continue to open communication between the parent and their child, and between the parent and school staff,” Mendez-Thompson explained.
“A lot of times, [parents] are logging in with their child and … I want [these workshops] to be a talking piece for them at the end—that when they log off and they have time to kind of soak it all in, I hope that they can go back and say, ‘Well, what did you think about this?’ And hopefully, it opens up communication in the household.”
After each 6-week program, UP asks for feedback from all of the attendees so that they can hear what classes were the most beneficial and what additional topics would help parents feel empowered and informed.
“It’s ever-growing, Mendez-Thompson said of the program. “I’m constantly growing and learning from them, and [the feedback] helps me with the next rotation, to make it better each time.”
Mendez-Thompson says she hopes people will consider joining for the remaining classes, or for the next round of workshops.
“I think everybody’s looking for connection right now, and this is a way to see familiar faces … while learning something together,” Mendez-Thompson said.
“It’s very engaging and meaningful for everybody— not only for parents but for the child, and something that they can do together,” she added.
“I always say let’s empower ourselves, let’s keep going and growing together. And so I’m hoping that that’s what University for Parents continues to do for everybody, especially for our community.”