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Bruce Wilson and Dick Corbett describe an evaluation of Kentucky's Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership.

Through its Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership (CIPL),1 Kentucky's Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence has designed a training program to help participating parents (known as Fellows) broaden their involvement in schools and school reform. Parents move from being school volunteers and/or advocates for their own children to become sophisticated critics of school reform and resourceful change agents whose actions benefit all educational stakeholders.

The program begins with a 3-month-long sequence of workshops that introduce Fellows to their rights to know about and gain access to school operations; key elements of Kentucky's reform legislation and policy; where to go and whom to contact for information about educational and community resources; and specific ways to act as advocates for school reform. Upon completion of the training, each Fellow undertakes a project designed to have an eventual effect on student achievement, involve other parents, and be sustainable in subsequent years. 

From an initial 3-year evaluation of CIPL, we learned that Fellows significantly increased their knowledge about schools and school reform, built their confidence to work in those settings, and expanded their willingness to act for the betterment of all students in their community.2 Recently, we investigated the experiences of all Fellows subsequent to their "graduation" from CIPL to see if their training continued to have ramifications in their children's schools, their local districts and communities, and the state.3

In summer 2007, we conducted interviews with nearly 60 parents chosen from a list of 100 parents provided by CIPL. The obvious bias toward "activist" parents was intentional, to allow us to bring to the surface a rich and deep collection of experiences. We asked parents about their project's sustainability, their continued engagement in educational activities, and the facilitators and barriers to their engagement. Out of these interview responses, we developed a survey, which we mailed to all 1,200 CIPL graduates across the 10 years of the program. Survey items measured continued networking with CIPL and other Fellows, ongoing project activity, further knowledge acquired about educational issues, the impact of CIPL experiences on Fellows' current engagement in schools, ability to promote CIPL goals, and the effect of CIPL on personal and professional lives.

From interview and survey results, we found four main themes: a) Fellows became more concerned with promoting the best interests of all children, not just their own; b) fellows sustained their involvement post-training and broadened its scope beyond schools; c) fellows felt empowered to act because they felt more knowledgeable, confident, and competent; and d) fellows become more influential in their schools and communities.

Related Resource

Commissioner’s Parents Advisory Council. (2007). The missing piece of the proficiency puzzle: Recommendations for involving families and communities in improving student achievement. Final report to the Kentucky Department of Education. Frankfort, KY: Kentucky Department of Education. In this report, the Kentucky Commissioner’s Parent Advisory Council (CPAC), the majority of whose members have completed the Prichard Committee’s CIPL training, recommends that Kentucky become the first state in the nation to set standards for family involvement focused on improving student achievement. The report includes six objectives for increasing family and community involvement in education and a rubric for rating family and community involvement in the schools.

The interview data richly illustrated these themes, as nearly every interviewee offered examples of how CIPL training influenced his or her life. The most obvious impact was parents' realization that they could make a difference. One parent described voicing her opinion at a local school board meeting. Before CIPL, she said, "I absolutely would not have been there to speak up." Fellows also acquired the ability to understand educational jargon, which led to greater comfort and a sense of empowerment in advocating for school reform. One parent said, "I can now talk with teachers comfortably, understand their vernacular, and am better able to evaluate what they are telling me."

New knowledge and skills spurred parents' willingness to tackle broader issues. Many said they joined a school committee or attended school board meetings after discovering that they knew state regulations governing the operation of school-based decision-making councils as well as or better than some school administrators. Some used their knowledge to force school officials to comply with formal guidelines and procedures and to inform other parents about their rights.

The Fellows continue to play a variety of active and visible roles in their communities and the state. Some are members of local, site-based decision-making councils, while others have won seats on local school boards. In these capacities, Fellows have had a direct hand in shaping curricula, consolidating schools, and hiring superintendents. Beyond the local school systems, Fellows lobby the state legislature about increasing educational funding and tailoring policies to better meet students' needs, serve on various state commissions or advisory councils, and speak to teacher education students around the state about parents' perspectives.

The study's data point to the conclusion that a program such as CIPL can be effective in prompting some parents—perhaps those already inclined toward activism—to become keenly involved in schools and school reform. The cumulative weight of what we have learned so far is best summed up by one parent's exclamation: "I didn’t know I could do that!"

1 To read more about CIPL, visit

2 Our report, I Didn’t Know I Could Do That: Parents Learning to be Leaders Through the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership, was prepared in 2000 with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Access the full report at

3 The 2008 report, Knowledge is Empowering, which was supported by the Spencer Foundation, is available at

Bruce Wilson
Independent Researcher
11 Linden Avenue
Merchantville, NJ 08109
Tel: 856-488-1398

Dick Corbett
Independent Researcher
512 Conestoga Road
Malvern, PA 19355
Tel: 610-408-9206

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