Resistance, Partnership, Re-evaluation: A Data-Driven Summer of Engaging Parents at Glenn Elementary School

Guest post by Alec Greenwald | Director of Academic Engagement for Global & Civic Opportunities; Data + Project Lead

Last October the North Carolina Innovative School District (NCISD) identified a number of schools across the state that they highlighted as “low performing.”  With the list, their goal was to turn the schools over to private charter school operators.  Two of those schools were here in Durham!  NCISD was threatening to take over Lakewood Elementary School and Glenn Elementary School whereby much of the leadership and decision-making processes would no longer be public, but instead privatized.  Within the span of two weeks, the Durham community mobilized to fight off the NCISD in order to remain autonomous over their schools.  Out of this exciting movement emerged some of our least expected leaders: teachers, parents, students, and concerned community members.  Some of my very close friends, David and Tamara Vanie, not only found themselves in front of the news cameras and microphones advocating for Glenn Elementary School, but they would also soon find themselves emerging as the PTA Presidents of the school.

Because David and Tamara were new to the role, and because the PTA at Glenn Elementary School historically had such a difficult time attracting parents and organizing their efforts, David and Tamara reached out to me to see how Duke could be helpful.  Through a series of impromptu conversations, we were able to initiate a Data + project on campus in an effort to support the Glenn PTA in organizing their parent constituency.  We wrote a description of the project, and recruited students to join the 10-week data-driven research project led by David, Tamara, and myself.

After a long hard fight to resist the NCISD takeover, creating a new partnership between Duke and Glenn, and assembling a team, we then faced the daunting task of organizing the summer project.  Admittedly, our plan for the summer was half-baked; we knew that we needed to create some set of metrics to support David and Tamara in organizing their PTA, but we ran into the significant obstacle of accessing enough public data surrounding the Glenn Elementary School zone.

Whereas we were starting the summer with an eager and talented team, our team became quickly demoralized when they found themselves without the proper data.  Because the nature of most Data + projects involves large quantities of pre-determined sets of data, we found ourselves needing to reevaluate the best approach for supporting our client.  Our new approach required us to lean into the parent constituency that comprises Glenn to hear their stories.  They were our data!  It was through listening to their stories that we were able to highlight some of the major concerns: lack of bus access, no sidewalks in front of the school, a large English Language Learner (ELL) population, an enormous zone that made meeting in one central location difficult, lack of clarity around what the role of the PTA does, etc.  It was through focus groups and more qualitative research that the students were able to distinguish a plan for their summer project.  The team designed a manual of best practices from around the country to support the Glenn PTA, and they created a survey tool for David and Tamara to keep track of their parents, and to identify the strengths of each parent and their unique relationship to the school.

Our team was triumphant at the end of the summer in that we were able to support our community partner, but there were many moments where we could feel ourselves stepping out on the ledge and taking risks.   At the end of the project, I am proud that our team was steadfast in our approach of listening to the parents and leadership at Glenn in an effort to understand their needs.  While the project may have not met our expectations of how we thought we were going to spend the summer, I am confident that the final product will be useful in growing and organizing a PTA at Glenn Elementary School!

Check out the following video to learn more about our summer:

Special shout out to the “Glenn School” Data + Team: Tamara Vanie, David Vanie, Aaron Crouse, Peyton Schaeffer, Mariah Jones, and Nicholas Simmons.