In 2007, Sarasota businessman David Voss launched Be There, a campaign to inspire parents to get more involved with their children's education. Since then, 100 school districts, including Pinellas and Pasco, have become subscribers. Be There differs from other parental involvement programs because it focuses on changing behavior, Voss says. He spoke to St. Petersburg Times education reporter Donna Winchester about the campaign as he finalizes plans to take it nationwide.
Why did you decide to launch Be There?
In conversations with disengaged parents, I was getting three responses to the question "Why aren't you more involved in your children's education?" One was, "I'm just too busy." Another was, "I don't feel qualified." Another group was just very intimidated. Maybe school hadn't been a friendly or inviting environment for them.
And so we … created a media campaign patterned after the "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk" campaign. We figured, "If you can sell a $30,000 car with a 30-second commercial, why can't you sell parents on getting involved?
How are you getting this message out to families?
We offer Be There at no charge to school districts. They don't pay anything, unless they choose to have some of the printed material duplicated. We simply ask the districts to put up the posters or to put our articles in their newsletter. All this attention drives parents to the Web site. Once they get there, they can view videos. They can go into the forum section and have a conversation about a particular topic. They can comment on the blog. They can submit their own stories. … We get these Be There moments from all over the country.
What is a Be There moment?
To "be there" means to be present with your child during the ordinary moments of life and turning them into something extraordinary. Everybody knows how to do that, and everybody has time to do that. Everybody goes to the grocery store, everybody goes to the ATM, everybody cooks and does laundry. In all of those situations, you can work on math, you can work on reading.
People normally think of parental involvement as something that happens at the school. The usual way schools try to get parents involved is by saying, "Come to us and we'll teach you what to do." That's an educator's natural response, but it can come off as lecturing or preaching. It can sound condescending.
We want to get parents involved in their child's education as opposed to getting them involved in the school.
Can you give me an example?
In the grocery store, a child may be putting stuff into the basket that is sweet or too expensive. The parent fights with the child to put it back. Instead, the parent could give the child $5 and say, "You can get anything you want as long as sugar isn't among the first three ingredients." That forces the child to read. The child has to do math. He or she has to think critically, deciding among different items. The child is happy and satisfied when they get to the checkout aisle. And he or she usually ends up with fruit, which makes the parent happy, too.
So this is basically parent-driven?
Yes. Parents are in a better position than teachers to turn everyday situations into teachable moments. The parent is the more important teacher. They may just need some inspiration.
The need for inspiration crosses all socioeconomic and ethnic lines. Oftentimes, wealthy parents need these reminders to be present more than anyone. We have kids who have everything but their parents' attention. The classic case of that are these drop-down TV screens in minivans. The parent puts the kid in the car and pulls down the screen. She turns the key in the ignition and gets on her cell phone. She's missing a golden opportunity to connect with her child.
When will you know that your campaign has been successful?
We want a national campaign the magnitude of "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk," where the post-evaluation would show we changed the behavior of millions of parents. We think that's feasible because we know parents want to do good and because it's such a simple message they'll know they can do it.
Are you confident that you'll get it?
We think we're on the cusp of a trend. I think the time is right for it. People are acknowledging that schools can't do this alone.