For Parents, a Can-Do Spirit That's Catching

Cathy Santiago, here with son Raymond Collazo, 15, graduated from the Parent Leadership Training Institute.
Cathy Santiago, here with son Raymond Collazo, 15, graduated from the Parent Leadership Training Institute. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007

Cathy Santiago used to sit in the back of the room at PTA meetings at her son's school, often the only Hispanic parent there. She dutifully took notes on everything. She wanted to be part of the school, of her community, but she felt intimidated. She worried about her English. "I'm just a parent," she would say. So she never raised her hand. Never said a word.

Then last September, Santiago saw a flier in her son's backpack about a new program. "Do you want to be an advocate for your children?" it read. "Do you sometimes feel defeated by the 'system?' " "Do you think parents can make good leaders?"

She found herself answering yes to all three questions. So she filled out an application, went through an interview and won a spot in a day-long retreat and 20 weeks of intensive, free classes for the city's first Parent Leadership Training Institute.

The institute, modeled after a long-running program in Connecticut, bills itself as nothing short of a means to reinvigorate democracy. The idea is to take 25 parents from different backgrounds -- socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, geographic -- and help them unlock their passions for making the world better for their children. And then teach the parents the skills to make that happen.

For Santiago, the experience has been transforming.

A tutoring program in reading that she created as part of the institute won an award from Alexandria City Public School Partners in Education. She sits on two of the school system's advisory committees and has been chosen to serve on the superintendent's group studying the achievement gap. She wrote a letter to the editor for a class assignment, and it was published.

And she has found her voice at PTA meetings.

"Now I'm not scared," Santiago said. "I can advocate for my child. I know how to approach people who may be different, but know that we're all working toward the same goal."

Finding Common Ground

Hers is one of many transformations. Other parents who once felt like overwhelmed outsiders are now serving on multicultural committees at their jobs, starting nationwide Internet support groups for single parents, creating community newsletters, adopting neighborhood parks, and organizing child-care and parent groups for their apartment complexes. Institute graduate Bill Campbell has announced his intention to run for the School Board in 2009.

"The institute helped me to step up and step out," said graduate Marilyn Bryant, who is planning to become a parent advocate for neglected and abused children.

Gloria Spottswood is now active in lobbying for pedestrian safety in the city's West End near Landmark Mall where her 17-year-old daughter works. For her, the most powerful part of the institute was learning to listen to and work with people very different from her. "I learned that no matter where we come from -- race, creed, color -- every one of us wants the same thing. We want safe places to live, good neighborhoods and good schools," she said. "We came from Africa and Spanish-speaking countries. We were Caucasian and African American. But no matter what our preconceived notions about each other were, we always came to common ground. There was real intensity in that."

Eleven students who graduated from the institute in May are serving on citywide boards and commissions, such as the school system's Minority Achievement Committee and the city's Law Library Board and Social Services Advisory Board.

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