Nate Donovan’s idea was simple: Teach school bus drivers and aides basic Spanish phrases to help them better communicate with Spanish-speaking students and families.

He called the project, “School Bus Drivers Habla Espanol.”

The Fort Collins resident, a school bus driver himself, presented the idea to three-dozen adults and teenagers gathered in a Loveland 4H meeting room one Thursday night last month. They were his classmates in a 20-week course called the Family Leadership Training Institute, or FLTI.

One by one, all of them would present their own community project proposals at a podium in front of the room. But that night Donovan had a special addendum to his three-minute speech. He announced that just a few days before he’d filed the preliminary paperwork needed to run for school board next fall.

“This is my calling and it starts right here, right now,” he said, to enthusiastic applause and cheers from his fellow students.

It may not have been the conventional backdrop for such an announcement, but it seemed fitting for a class that helps participants learn how to navigate the world of public policy.

While the class is non-partisan and focuses on no single policy issue, the point is to get parents and other community members engaged in bigger discussions about the issues that affect their lives.

In other words, “Teaching families how to go from the kitchen table to the policy table,” said Eileen Forlenza, a parent and community engagement specialist at the state health department. The department coordinates the program.

Why train parents as leaders?

Parent leadership programs are partly borne out of research showing that engaged parents and strong family partnerships make a difference for kids. In an education context, they help children do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more. There are similarly positive results for family health outcomes.

In Colorado, FLTI is one component of the state’s broader efforts to foster family engagement. A two-year-old program, housed in the Colorado Department of Education, offers trainings to educators and parents about school and district accountability committees, both of which must include parent members. Since 2009, there has also been the State Advisory Council for Parent Involvement in Education, which provides feedback on topics ranging from the READ Act to the state’s Turnaround Network.

Colorado FLTI locations
  • Adams County
  • Arapahoe/Douglas Counties
  • Denver/Aurora
  • Denver/Five Points
  • Dolores/Montezuma Counties
  • Eagle County
  • Lake County
  • Larimer County
  • Mesa County
  • Prowers County

Darcy Hutchins, family partnership director at the education department, said FLTI’s work dovetails nicely with the efforts she leads.

“It’s really challenging for any parent regardless of their circumstances to step into a leadership role,” said Hutchins. “I think the training that FLTI does can really help to build parents’ capacity.”

The training institute, like similar programs in a dozen other states, is modeled on a Connecticut initiative founded in 1992 after leaders there discovered that parents had good ideas for improving child outcomes but felt no one would listen to them.

That discouraging news came out of a series of statewide focus groups aimed at improving school readiness, said Patti Keckeisen, national program implementer for the Connecticut-based National Parent Leadership Institute.

“It was a constant refrain…They had the best ideas, but they didn’t feel powerful,” she said.

Leaders there subsequently developed and piloted a 10-week civic leadership course for parents, later expanding it to 20 weeks. Forlenza discovered Connecticut’s curriculum in 2006 while searching for a proven family leadership program to implement in Colorado.

Colorado beginnings

The first Colorado FLTI classes launched in Cortez, Westminster, and Littleton in 2009. Since then, it has grown to 10 sites, with Adams County launching the first monolingual Spanish FLTI course in 2012.

For the first time this spring, both the Loveland site and the Denver-Five Points site, which are run by the Colorado State University Extension, launched companion FLTI classes for youth. Like the adult course, the youth version focuses on leadership development and requires participants to plan a community project, but the curriculum is a bit different and aside from a few joint sessions, the youth meet separately.

Eighth-grader Edgardo Meza-Alba signed up for the youth class in Loveland at the suggestion of his mom Tonky Mathew, an adult participant.

During a break in the three-hour class last month, he said he enjoyed the weekly sessions, despite having to miss Thursday soccer practice to attend.

“You can make friends here,” he said. “You look at things differently…[You learn] how to be a better leader, how to be a more open person.”

Piecing together the leadership puzzle

While civic leadership can seem a bit abstract, FLTI approaches the subject in a very hands-on way. With the help of trained facilitators, participants share their own histories, work on small group projects, practice skills through role play, work on public speaking and, at the end of the course go on a field trip to the state Capitol.

During a March session adult participants made collages showing how society perceives families and family leaders. They clipped out dozens of magazine pictures of queens, smiling moms, quirky TV families, a pan of lasagna and even Oprah posing with a tiger.

The ensuing discussion raised pointed questions about whether fathers advocate enough for family issues, whether families are mostly seen as consumers rather than leaders, and whether power requires wealth.

One participant observed that often when there are problems in schools, “It’s not taken care of till one of the kids with money, it happens to them.”

Next door in the youth classroom, groups of teens tried — and sometimes struggled — to practice reflective listening as they role-played adolescent problems like sibling rivalry, scolding adults and fair-weather friends.

“This seemingly simple task is actually really hard,” admitted one girl.

Challenges and victories

While FLTI is well established in Colorado compared to many other states — where often one city or region offers the program — it’s not without its challenges.

Raising money is one of the biggest. Currently, funding for the classes — about $20,000-$35,000 per site — comes from the Colorado Health Foundation, portions of two federal grants, and dollars raised by the local host agencies.

But the number of communities that want to offer the course outstrips the supply of willing funders. In part, it’s because the concept of family leadership is often misunderstood, conjuring up adversarial images of activism or prompting questions about the program’s agenda, said Forlenza.

Is it education reform, health care reform, something else?

None of the above, said Forlenza.

“It’s getting the voice of everyday families back in the civic process,” she said.

What that means is perhaps best explained by the kinds of community projects participants plan during the course. In the Loveland class, besides Donovan’s bus driver project, a middle school football coach from Fort Collins proposed a mentoring program for his athletes called “Warriors of Excellence.”

Kiara, a teenage participant, citing statistics about teen suicide, self harm and sexual abuse, proposed a support group for teens or tweens “to just be heard.”

A number of grassroots projects have also came from the program’s 425 alumni across the state, Forlenza said. One participant convinced county commissioners to build a bridge over a ditch that separated her small neighborhood from a local park.

Another, whose young son was chronically ill, helped establish a program for siblings at Children’s Hospital. That mom went on to serve on the hospital’s family advisory council and is now serves on a national health care council.

There are also marked behavior shifts among participants who take the course. A national evaluation of the model revealed large increases in the percent of participants who attended meetings of elected officials, spoke at such meetings or contacted lawmakers after completing the course.

For many participants, the classes go beyond just teaching individual skills and confidence. They create a sense of community. When Donovan made his official school board race announcement at a restaurant a few weeks after he revealed his plans at FLTI, he enthusiastically reported that several classmates attended, along with their children.

“We’re so fortunate these efforts are being made and we’re developing a bench of people who are active in their community,” said Donovan. “The value of what we’re learning in these 20 weeks is immeasurable.”

Chalkbeat Colorado is a grantee of the Colorado Health Foundation.