By Stephanie Harp

We believe that families are partners with the school system that educates their children. The students are the consumers of the products the education system is producing. Their voices are important in identifying solutions to the challenges they face.

Pious Ali, director of Portland Empowered

With that idea as a driving principle, Portland Empowered has been breaking down barriers, building bridges, and providing forums for conversations and change since its start at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service in 2014. In March 2021, Portland Empowered moved to its new home within the independent, nonprofit Foundation for Portland Public Schools, which is Portland Empowered’s fiscal sponsor. Primary support comes from Nellie Mae Education Foundation and local funders.

Portland Empowered is dedicated to collaborative work – with students, parents, and the school district. “Going to the Foundation for Portland Public Schools is moving closer to our closest working partner, which is the school district,” Ali said. “At the core of everything that we do is collaboration and building relationships with the school district. We look at things that are not working, and at what is working. We don’t go in swinging our bats and saying that you need to do this.” Portland Empowered works collaboratively with the school district to look at issues identified by parents and students, then works with the school district to find solutions.

One of the most successful ways that Portland Empowered has achieved open, collaborative dialogues is through their Shared Space Cafe. This is a conversation model between families and the school district. “What we do differently is that the school side is there to listen. We don’t have a platform, where school officials are on a stage with everyone else on the other side,” Ali explained. “We broke that down. We put English speakers in one group, French speakers in another, Spanish and Arabic in others.” Parents facilitate these conversations, in their own languages. Portland Empowered provides interpreters but, in a departure from more common structure, the interpreters provide translation into English for school representatives, so that school district representatives are recipients of the interpretation services, not the parents. This puts parents in charge of the conversations.

Ali explained another departure from more common dynamics: “If you are in any job for more than 10 years, you are considered to be an expert. So by the time your child gets to high school, you are an expert in that job of parenting. You are coming to this table as an expert. The school side is coming as an expert in education.” This idea underlies the Parent Engagement Partners (PEPs) group. These are parents, grandparents, siblings, alumni, teachers, administrators, and community members who meet every other month to ensure that parent voices are authentically incorporated into decision making in Portland’s three public high schools.

Parent Engagement Partners meet at the beginning of the year to create priorities, which they pass on to Parent Lead Organizers. The Lead Organizers have gone through Portland Empowered’s signature Parent Ambassador Training to learn how to facilitate and how to organize. These Parent Lead Organizers meet weekly to conduct outreach, develop strategies, and plan and implement campaigns concerning local education. Individuals in these important roles each work with a specific high school, make connections, and facilitate conversations between the schools and other parents or community members, some of whom do not speak English or have had minimal access to education.

“They are our extension into the community. They facilitate at the Shared Space Cafe tables. We work with them to recruit parents,” Ali said. Crucially, the Parent Lead Organizers amplify the voices of those who – too often – are left out of decision making in the education system.

In a parallel structure on the youth level, one to three Youth Lead Organizers (YLOs) represent each Portland high school every year at weekly meetings where they learn and practice organizing and leadership skills, plan district-wide meetings, facilitate activities for the larger Youth Engagement Partners meetings, and work with their respective high schools to recruit other students. YLOs also receive training from Portland Empowered.
Any teen can apply for one of the YLO positions, though Youth Engagement Partners receive priority consideration. Like PEPs, the YEPs also meet to engage and lead other students, establish meeting agendas, and learn to facilitate conversations. “We work with them to build their leadership skills,” said Ali, “We are just there to create a container and to give them the support they need to grow.” YEPs organize within Portland’s public high schools to help Portland schools become more student-centered. YEPs have designed and facilitated youth-led trainings for teachers and staff to support schools in identifying ways to deepen student-staff relationships and help schools understand what it is like to be a student today. Both Parent Lead Organizers and Youth Lead Organizers are paid small stipends for their work.

After many successful conversations via the Shared Space Cafe, Portland Empowered asked parents what they needed from the schools in order to be fully engaged, and asked the schools what they needed from parents. Portland Empowered representatives took notes and engaged technical support partners from the former Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, which has since become CYCLE, the Center For Youth and Community Leadership in Education, at Roger Williams University.

“We worked with them to create the Parent Engagement Manifesto,” Ali said. This parents’ “bill of rights” is an agreement between parents and schools regarding how schools will engage parents, and asking the school district to amend or rewrite its family engagement policy. Another committee, directed by the school board as a result of the manifesto, engages parents, teachers, staff members, district leadership, and community leaders to look at policy. Through their ongoing meetings, this committee examines such concerns as racial equity and equity in discipline within the schools.

The group rewrote the district’s policy of family engagement to base it more strongly on points in the manifesto, such as requiring parents, schools, and communities to work together to improve results, thus ensuring that the whole range of voices is included in decision-making processes, and being accessible to parent and community leaders from diverse backgrounds, along with sufficient resources to implement these changes.

In 2019, with seed funding from Maine Community Foundation, MaineHealth, and other individual supporters, Portland Empowered launched the Civic and Community Engagement Fellowship, a leadership program designed specifically to build the leadership and professional skills of the emerging leaders, between the ages of 21-27, who are from immigrant communities and of ethnic and racial minority backgrounds. The pilot cohort of this fellowship program ran last year with emerging leaders who come from the same backgrounds as Portland Empowered parents and students, and Portland Empowered is looking to repeat the program’s success.

Portland Empowered won a Distinguished Service Award in 2018 from the Maine School Boards Association, which touted the group for its work in reaching out to local youth and family, and nurturing youth leaders. “We’ve developed from this small program into a resource and an incubator of leaders from the community and Portland Public Schools,” said Ali.

At this point, Portland Empowered shows no signs of slowing down. They are working with Maine Community Integration, with support from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, to start a parent group in Lewiston. The goal is to establish a similarly collaborative relationship with that school district, regarding what is and is not working for families there. And they are working with Cross Cultural Community Services to offer Parent Ambassador Training for Westbrook and South Portland parents this summer and fall, in two sessions of five weeks each, with support from the United Way’s Racial Equity Fund. In the meantime, Portland Empowered leaders have been busy making presentations at national conferences such as the Family and Community Engagement Conference, Education Writers Association, and others, and the program has been featured on American Graduate, a dialogue that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting facilitates in high-need communities to look for solutions to improve educational outcomes for youth as they approach graduation.
For more information see; Shared Space Cafe,

At the core of everything that we do is collaboration and building relationships with the school district.

Pious Ali