by Rob Franklin
As the summer is winds down, the time begins when parents start preparing their children for the upcoming school year. For Nichelle Nichols, this is now the time to help parents and schools to prepare their children.
Nichols was recently named Director of Family, Youth and Community Engagement for the Madison Metropolitan School District. The position is a natural fit for Nichols, who is a graduate of Madison schools and has children that have attended schools here as well.
“I understand the history of this district, particularly with communities of color. For me, yes, I’m a graduate of West High School. But I’m going to rely more on the fact that I’m a parent in this district so I have a certain experience that I want to be able to bring into my role,” said Nichols.
“I have worked for over fifteen years in community-based organizations in Madison. I have had the non-profit experience with the district. I feel like my team and I have deep roots in this community and that’s important because we are authentic voices and are able to hear people in order to make things different,” added Nichols.
She and her staff want to continue to improve learning and success rates for students in the district. In order to do that, Nichols says that it is critical to get more dialogue between the schools and the community.
“The point is to make our students stronger and make our schools stronger,” said Nichols. “My position is really focused on how we can help build and support our schools so they have the confidence and the skill set to really focus on what true youth and family engagement looks like. We also want to offer learning opportunities for our family members,” she continued.
One of the first things on Nichols’ agenda is to go into the community to see what the school district can do to help students and their families see more success.
“I’ll be doing a listening tour. The first part of that will be with school based people and community partners. Then I will be getting out in neighborhoods – I’ll be asking our community partners and community centers that work in these neighborhoods to help us have sessions with families so that we can hear from them directly. To be able to learn what parental interactions have been like with their child’s school, what can we as a district do to better build trust, and how do we show parents that they are respected and valued and heard.”
Nichols feels that in order to create better engagement opportunities, it is key to be able to clearly define what ‘engagement’ actually means. “How do we better understand what it means to engage? Because the truth is that a lot of families are working, and just because they don’t come to the schoolhouse doesn’t mean that they are not engaged. We have to have an understanding and embrace that engagement is different for different families,” Nichols emphasized.
“We should not hold a negative view for families that can’t make it to the school all the time, it doesn’t mean that they don’t care or that they’re not engaged. So we want to be able to use that information and feedback to better inform how we will do our work,” she added.
The success rate for many students in the district revolves around their freshman year. Having a successful transition from middle school to high school is important for students in laying a foundation for further achievement. Nichols and her staff recognize that and are working to help that transition for all students.
“We want to focus our efforts around youth mentoring and youth leadership. We want to leverage some of our upperclassmen as mentors and give them a voice and let them lead. We know that there is a direct correlation between success in that freshman year and graduation. So we want to be able to focus in on that transition,” Nichols said.
She is also excited to lead one of the district’s main engagement programs, The Parent Academy. The Academy is an umbrella program conducted by community partners, teachers and other school district staff that focuses on creating an atmosphere that fosters and promotes student success and academic achievement.
“We are providing learning opportunities for families under The Parent Academy. It’s my job to make sure that people know that this opportunity exists; to make sure that it’s relevant to what parents want to know and learn, that it’s culturally inclusive and people showing up for these events, meaning that parents will actually be able to take advantage of what the district will be providing,” Nichols explained.
“I’m looking forward this year to be able to hear from our community partners, the teachers and the school staff that are teaching the workshops. Also, the family members that are coming to the workshops and those that never knew that these workshops existed. I want that feedback so we can make what we’re offering is relevant and accessible to everyone,” she said. “We want to develop the tools so that our schools and our community can say ‘Yes, that was really helpful.’”
One thing is quite clear: Nichelle Nichols is fully engaged in the area of engagement.
For more information on the school district’s programs, visit www.madison.k12.us