A common thread weaves through every event, initiative and program supported by Penn Charter’s Parent Community: helping to make the Penn Charter experience engaging and meaningful for parents and families. And while the role of the Parent Community has remained true for more than 60 years, the ways in which it engages parents has evolved.
In 2017, co-chairs Alyson Schwartz and Jennifer Fiss conducted an informal focus group of parents from all divisions, including those who attended Parent Community events and others who did not. They wanted to know: Which events work? Which do not? What makes you want to attend an event? Among the themes that emerged, parents wanted school-wide or division-wide parent gatherings, more opportunities for service projects, and more personal, informal means of communicating, such as phone calls from other parents.
The consensus was that parents and families are overstressed with events and obligations.
“We had to make adjustments,” Schwartz said. “We wanted to create opportunities where things are already happening at PC and parents are on campus anyway. And we needed opportunities to bring the whole group together and not just one grade.”
And so they retooled the annual parent socials, making them no-fuss parent pop-ins. The goal, Schwartz said, “was to eliminate as many obstacles as possible and make it easy to show up.” The pop-ins are no longer potluck—instead, the Parent Community provides the food, and parents just bring a beverage. Middle School pop-ins are scheduled at the same time as dances so that parents can “pop in” after dropping off their children. Lower School pop-ins include grades 1-5, with separate socials for pre-K and kindergarten, which continue to boast robust attendance.
“For Upper School,” Schwartz said, “we wanted to create an easy social during a football game, with food provided by the Parent Community.” So, the Parent Tailgate is a new opportunity to hang out with other parents before the game—with music provided by treasurer Scott Solomon, a frequent volunteer DJ.
Also new in the fall of 2018, Middle School Family Night was an invitation to families to gather at the Wissahickon Environmental Center for a guided night hike, s’mores over a campfire, space to play and even a ghost story courtesy of an older student. Next year, Schwartz said, they will build in more social time. “It was well-received, and we want to do it again. It was a great first-year effort.”
Perhaps the biggest development in the Parent Community in recent years is the Parent-to-Parent workshop model, a teach-and-learn program in which parents share expertise and common interests.
Fiss knew about the Teaching & Learning Center’s (TLC) lunch-and-learn sessions for faculty at Penn Charter, which are taught by teachers for teachers. She envisioned a program that would similarly tap the talents of parents for parents.
“This was part of a very intentional shift focused on building community among parents,” said Fiss, now former co-chair, who spearheaded the program. “People were interested in meaningful experience.
“It’s an exciting new way to bring people together. The parents who participate in the program have given me so much positive feedback. It’s been a nice way to re-engage parents across divisions.”
Fiss sometimes teams up with Ruth Aichenbaum, coordinator of Penn Charter’s TLC, to host faculty-parent crossover sessions, such as Upper School parent Gwen Glew’s “Environmental Causes of Cancer in Youth” and teacher Tom Rickards’ rock climbing tutorial.
Finding leads for new workshop material means discovering people’s interests and passions. Parent experts have included a pastry chef, a gemologist and an Indycar race engineer. In “What’s Under Your Hood?” Lower School parent Brigitte Addimando, who worked for Honda Performance on their race engine program, taught parents engine operation and maintenance, and how to change a tire.
More so than content, scheduling can present a challenge. When Headmaster John F. Gummere established the Community, as it was then called, in 1955, few women worked outside the home, people traveled less for work, and children were engaged in fewer extracurricular activities.
“We try to engage people in a way that works for them and to accommodate their schedules as well,” said Joy Chaffin, co-chair this year along with Schwartz. “Weekends have been least popular even though parents have requested them. People are just busy.” So Parent Community leaders offer an array of different choices at different times to accommodate the most people. Women are the most frequent attendees as well as presenters.
Knowing that cooking and baking were popular workshops, organizers believed that cooking as a service project would appeal to many parents. So Fiss decided to host “Community Cooking for Face to Face” to serve a longtime service partner of Penn Charter’s in Germantown. Face to Face strives to meet the basic needs of struggling families and individuals, some of whom are homeless. For the Parent Community project, Penn Charter parents made and delivered lasagna, chicken pot pie and Mexican spaghetti bake. This project also provided an opportunity for parents who couldn’t be there: They could contribute by providing ingredients.
This combination of community and service was so successful that Parent Community leaders built upon it for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“We worked with Aly Goodner [OPC ’96, director of the PC Center for Public Purpose] to craft a day that would be really useful,” Chaffin said. One group of parents donated ingredients, another group baked treats in advance, and a third group, along with students in the Food Insecurity Club, packaged the baked goods on MLK Day as a treat in nutritious lunch bags. Later that day, Upper School students delivered these lunch bags to homeless shelters.
Increasingly, the Parent Community has been collaborating with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Schwartz hopes that events centered on issues of diversity, such as the book discussion, led by Head of School Darryl J. Ford, of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge with a video appearance by author Erica Armstrong Dunbar, will attract more people, and not just people of color. Parent liaisons Yolanda and Reggie Banks have hosted “fireside chats to discuss things that affect all of us,” Schwartz said. “When do you talk to your kids about race? How do you raise children to be leaders in creating diverse friendships? How do you model that behavior?
“I really wanted to dispel the image of the Parent Community as ladies who lunch,” Schwartz said. “We want to appeal to people of different interests. I want to make a difference. We want to create lives that make a difference and support that environment for our children at school.”
The Parent Community founded generations ago continues to be vibrant and relevant. It still supports Color Day, staffing booths that sell cold drinks, lemon sticks and plenty of other refreshments. Volunteers bake and help Lower School students sell treats at the Valentine’s Day bake sale. And the Parent Community continues to host large fundraising events—but those events over the years have transformed from a Tea Dance back in the earliest days, to the Grace Fund Party, a casual affair that raised $25,000 last November, billed as “Color Day, but for grownups, at night, indoors!”
Alyson Schwartz, approaching the end of her two-year tenure as co-chair, will miss her role in creating and planning dynamic programming. But, she said, “I think that after two years, it’s time for somebody to come in with fresh ideas. You have to be ready for it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s gratifying. I like walking around campus and everybody knows you. Two years is about right.”
Fundamentals of Leadership
As the Parent Community has refocused its mission of supporting families and community at Penn Charter, the executive committee has also reworked its budget, reallocating money that supported the Middle School Play Day, for instance, and choosing instead to fund the Parent Tailgate and Middle School Family Night—events enjoyed by parents and families, not just students.
“It was a very intentional process that we went through,” Jennifer Fiss said, “to think about who we are, what our goals are as a parent community and how we’re going to use the money that families give us.” At the beginning of each year, each family is asked to pay $40 in dues to fund the organization’s many events.
Division chairs, who have long been instrumental in event planning, now have more autonomy and their own small budget to create events that are fun and meaningful for their division. And the executive committee now hosts an end-of-year breakfast for class chairs and division chairs as a way of thanking them for the work they do all year long.
In recent years, the timing with which new Parent Community co-chairs assume their two-year commitment has changed. No longer do both co-chairs step down as two others step up. Leadership is staggered so that between the co-chairs, only one is new each year. The same is true for divisional chairs.
The new co-chair, Joy Chaffin said, learns from the other, “who is experienced and knows the ins and outs. [She is] someone who has done the role for a year and knows the challenges.”
There is also an unofficial third year in leadership. Fiss, who was co-chair in 2016-17 and 2017-18, is now a sort of co-chair emeritus, continuing to lead the Parent-to-Parent program.
“There is so much institutional knowledge you gain as a chair that you can be a resource to others,” Fiss said.