Questions about school lead parents to Saturday classes

Parent University is a Saturday program of valuable details for moms and dads.
Larry Plank is director of STEM education for the Hillsborough County School District. Hundreds turned out to Plant City High School for Parent University on Aug. 24. More are coming up. MARLENE SOKOL   |   Times
Larry Plank is director of STEM education for the Hillsborough County School District. Hundreds turned out to Plant City High School for Parent University on Aug. 24. More are coming up.MARLENE SOKOL | Times
Published August 30 2013

PLANT CITY — Teachers like to gripe about parents.

But consider this: 400 parents signed up in 20 hours for a Saturday morning event called Parent University, with 200 more on a waiting list.

The start time was 7:45 a.m.

The free lunch at Plant City High School might have helped, but let's not kid ourselves. Parents have a lot of questions about public schools.

If they are Loren St. Pearre, with kids at Valrico Elementary, they want to be up to speed on the new Common Core curriculum.

If they're Caleen Nelson, mother of a sophomore at Bloomingdale High School, they want their son to care about more than basketball.

And if they're Cynthia Simmons, mother of twin 4-year-olds, they have serious reservations about public school.

Parent University, which was launched last year, combines the resources of the school district, the Hillsborough PTA council, the Hillsborough Education Foundation and the nonprofit Alliance for Public Schools.

Following the Aug. 24 event, five more are planned this school year.

If you go, here's what you can expect.

• • •

7:45 a.m. The atmosphere is like a professional conference — by design, says Melissa Erickson, director of the Alliance for Public Schools.

In the opening session, Erickson says Parent University was her idea, and Superintendent MaryEllen Elia — who is also there — signed on immediately.

"This is about making the community understand the incredible resources we have in the schools," Erickson says.

Elia commends the parents who turned out. "The most important thing that can happen in your children's education is your being involved," she says.

She touts district initiatives, including one of her favorites, the myON reading program. A collaborative effort of the district, the Hillsborough Children's Board, the public library system and other organizations, myON has made thousands of books available online to children as young as preschool age. In less than a year and a half, she says, kids have read more than 2.7 million books.

There are more greetings and announcements, then time for the break-out sessions.

• • •

9 a.m. Parents can choose among eight topics, some tailored to different age groups and given in English or Spanish.

The hard part is selecting, as you can attend only two.

That's why some parents attend more than one event, Erickson says. Raquel Sanchez and Fernando Amieva, whose children are in the Rampello Downtown Partnership School, have never missed one. "We want our children to be successful, so we need to learn all we can," Sanchez says.

A large crowd is filing into the session about STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Nelson sits in the back, adjusting her glasses. The group is multicultural and predominantly female.

Larry Plank, the district's director of STEM education, starts with a slide and video show, a lot of grim statistics. Though technology jobs offer far higher pay than non-technology jobs, minorities and women are underrepresented, and America's universities are training a lot of people who won't stay here.

"Over 40 percent of U.S. doctoral candidates in STEM are foreign nationals," he says. "We're starting to experience a brain drain."

The good news? Common Core State Standards, an educational movement in which instruction follows logically from one year to the next, could help students stay interested in math and science.

"It's not just about content, it's about application," Plank says. And the district has been successful in getting grants to increase programs it can offer at schools around the district.

Questions from the group reveal enormous disparities in what parents know.

One mother has two children in charter schools and a third enjoying a new advanced-placement computer science class at Durant High School. After just four days, he wants to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she says.

A father never heard of Middleton High School, the district's showcase STEM magnet school.

There are questions about AP courses. Are they voluntary? How much do colleges like them?

Plank answers patiently and leaves a stack of business cards. Nelson, the mother from Bloomingdale, walks away pleased.

"It was very informational," she says. "I'm going to encourage my son to take more courses in science and engineering."

• • •

10:00 a.m. Between classes, parents pass through a trade show-style display of sponsors and fundraising companies.

Simmons, the mother who wasn't sold on public schools, just came out of a session about myON. "It was interesting, but I would like it better if they had parental controls," she says.

St. Pearre and her friend, Dena Gregory, learned about Edsby, the new student information site.

School district Web communications manager Gregory Hart walked them through a demonstration, how to create a parent account and so forth.

"For us working parents, it's great," St. Pearre says, and Gregory is realizing she'll need all the help she can get staying informed when her kids enter middle school.

• • •

10:15 a.m. You'd expect a long line for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office's class about cyberbullying.

But only four parents make it to the session.

A new state law requires schools to get involved when cyberbullying affects student performance — even if the acts take place outside school.

Deputy Rodney Baker, resource officer at Plant City High, gives a sobering account of suicides and near-suicides that resulted when students were harassed or humiliated. He covers the legal points, explaining that when the harassment crosses the line to stalking, officials can consider criminal charges.

Something else a lot of people might not know: Sexting is a crime in Florida. Both the person who sent the text and the one who received it can be prosecuted, unless the recipient takes prompt action to alert authorities.

He warns about videogame chat rooms. He says although it's hard to buy a phone that is not a smartphone, you don't have to buy the data plan that connects to the Internet.

Some of his advice sounds like common sense: Don't let your child use his or her phone as an alarm clock, otherwise he will have access to it at times when he shouldn't.

Or: Have the computer in the family room, where it can be monitored.

He asks: What would you do if you found out that someone was using social media to post nasty comments about your child?

One mother says she'd call the child's parents.

But what if you don't know them?

Call the principal, he advises. Make it the school's problem.

• • •

11:30 a.m. Parents sit down to a catered lunch, sponsored by the PTA. Some head for the doors with their food in to-go plates. No one minds. It is, after all, the first Saturday of the school year.

Erickson is at the door, promising similar — if not identical — offerings Sept. 28 at Jefferson High and Oct. 26 at Gaither High (

And no, it isn't cheap.

"We are absolutely looking for donors," she says.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356.