06/07/2013 05:02 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

Parents Lead the Way in Maine

Most parents spend their week nights in a flurry of activity - pick-ups, dinner, homework and bedtime rituals leave little time for anything else.

However, in one New England town, a group of parents has been spending three hours every Wednesday night for five months learning how to become better advocates for their children, schools and communities.

In January, the Sanford, Maine, school district and its lead community partner, Safe and Healthy Sanford Coalition, launched the 20-week Parent Leadership Training Institute (PLTI) with funding from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

With graduation approaching, the Institute has helped its first class of 14 parents gain a better understanding of policy and political systems, and improve their communications and public speaking skills so they can become more informed and involved citizens. In classes such as "Social and Economic Trends Affecting Children and Families" and "The Power of Media and How to Harness It," parents have learned practical skills such as how to speak in front of a school board and write a letter to the editor.

One participant, Diana Pettis, who is a teacher in Sanford and resident of Acton, Maine, says the program has changed the way she communicates and works with people daily. Through Diana's work to turn part of the Acton library into a community center, she has built up considerable confidence to talk to town leaders and other residents to raise awareness and support for her project. As her project progresses, she's learned about the need for a special vote to secure grant money from the state for such a center, and she has spread the word at town breakfasts, and through friends and businesses, and she hopes to garner enough backing to present a plan to the Acton Selectmen.

"I'm so excited about what I'm doing," said Diana. "Thanks to what I learned at PLTI, I've been able to get people in my community to like my idea and want to help."

The Institute's design is based on a similar model in Connecticut that Sanford school leaders visited last summer. To build its own program, the district earmarked funds from the Foundation's DLSC grant initiative - they awarded $16 million in grants over three and a half years to four New England school districts in early 2012 - for the Safe and Healthy Sanford Coalition to create a train-the-trainer model, recruit parent participants and provide the initial training. The Institute also provides parents with childcare and dinner to make the time commitment easier on them.

Participants are taught about "passion with a purpose," according to Diana, as well as the importance of harnessing emotion to frame arguments when talking with diverse groups - from other parents to local and state officials.

Each PLTI student is required to undertake a specific project during the 20-week class, like Diana's plan for the Acton community center.

Through personalized recruitment at events, faith-based communities and parent networks -- coupled with an application process -- the Institute was able to form its first student body. When this freshman class graduates on June 10, they will be armed with the knowledge and skills to affect positive change in their schools and communities, not only for their children but also for future generations.

The impressive dedication of these parents reaffirms that a knowledgeable and engaged public is central to the success of the education reform movement. To meet the needs of a 21st-century economy, our society needs more students achieving at much higher levels, and that can only happen when school districts foster positive collaboration with those who know the students best - the parents.