Giving Parents a Voice

A Conversation with Sharlonda Buckman, Assistant Superintendent of Family and Community Engagement in the Detroit Public Schools Community District

Navigating the educational system isn't always smooth sailing — but engaged, passionate parents are critical to a child's success. 

Dylan Key, 7, leans against his mother, Nicole Key, on August 4, 2020, in Detroit. (Brittany Greeson/Getty Images)

Sharlonda Buckman has spent more than 30 years advocating for Detroit’s students and their families. She started the Detroit Parent Network and grew it from a local nonprofit, aimed at giving parents a voice in the school system, to one of the most influential parent advocacy organizations in the country. She’s worked to improve the system both outside and in, and she serves now as Assistant Superintendent of Family and Community Engagement in the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Bush Institute Executive Director Holly Kuzmich talked with Buckman in late July about her journey to empower parents and make improving education a vital community-wide conversation.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been an advocate in working with parents for a very long time now on education. Tell me how you got into this.

I believe that everybody's steps are ordered, and I think that if I had to pick a career, it probably would not have been this. I think it has everything to do with my personal experience as a young person growing up and having been put out of Detroit Public Schools.

In 1986, there was zero tolerance for violence and weapons in the schools, and I inadvertently had a paring knife in my pocket that one of my friends who always got in trouble had. Older people in our community, especially in the Black community, would eat fruit with a paring knife. Without getting into all the details, I was expelled from all Detroit Public Schools.

My mom didn’t have a high school diploma, but she certainly demonstrated in our house a commitment to education. We had a homework time. We had structured bedtimes. Even with her limited experience, she understood that education was the pathway out. So, when I was put out of school, it was a very traumatic experience, and my mother had to go before this formal board of folks in suits who really judged her. I remember being 14 years old, sitting there with my mother, feeling her tremble, because she was so overwhelmed and uncomfortable. It was interesting that nobody at that table could see the trauma that they were enacting on a family who really represents a lot of our families today. At the end of that meeting, the most magical thing happened to me. 

She didn't say, “you embarrassed me in front of all those good White folks.” She said, "You're my daughter. I love you, and we'll figure it out together." From that moment to this one, I’ve been a champion for kids and for families because many people don't have anyone, and there has to be someone who looks beyond the circumstances and sees the greatness in our kids. And, if they just had a little bit of support or help to the next venture, they could find their pathway out. I did.

When you were working with parents to grow the Detroit Parent Network, what did you hear and what did you see? What did they need that you could help provide and, sort of, be the liaison for?

I think about having spent 14 years at Detroit Parent Network and just can't believe it sometimes even when I say the number, but the organization has grown from serving several hundred parents to over 20,000 parents throughout the city, with multiple resource centers.

Early on, people just felt like they were up against a system that was insurmountable to them. The per pupil allocation then was contingent upon enrolling students in your school at the start of the school year, and so there was this snatch and grab of children and who got the latest widget. Then by January, kids were being kicked out. One of the things that we heard from parents then was there was just no due process…the same thing we hear today. 

They wanted equal opportunities in access and resources and quality teachers who were certified. They wanted a safe environment for their children. They were wanting advanced placement courses and after-school and before-school care for many working families. They wanted additional counselors and social workers in the schools. They wanted intentionality about how we address the issues with Black and Brown children, Black and Brown boys especially. I just think there was a lot of hopelessness that we heard from parents at that time, and so there was an opportunity, for once, to have a platform to speak. 

Folks would call me for things all over the city, and I would say, “I'll be there, but I’ve got to bring my parents with me.” It was an intentional way to begin to push on systems and make sure there was a voice at the table for our children. We always thought that there was somebody speaking for the unions, for every union. Every stakeholder had a voice at that table, and we thought who better to speak for children than their parents? So, it was my job to make sure that we created spaces in places and created the table, at times, for parents to champion and push the issues that they cared about.

Every stakeholder had a voice at that table, and we thought who better to speak for children than their parents?

Can you say more about what it's like for parents to try and navigate the school system? 

Some of it starts with just not knowing the language, and that's just so layered because what I've seen is a lot of our leaders say they want more active parent involvement. They want parents to be involved, until they challenge them. Then, they revert to education jargon as an immediate way to remind them that they’re the smartest person in the conversation and to put them in their place. That was probably one of the things that always triggered me the most because I don't like bullies. We had situations where, for our immigrant families who were voicing their opinion or pushing back, they would be threatened with, “If you don't do this, I'm going to call immigration.” It was that explicit. 

A Detroit mom and her son receive wireless devices in preparation for the upcoming school year on August 6, 2020. (via Instagram @detroitk12)

A huge issue, even though I think as a district we've gotten much better but we still have a long way to go, is the special needs children. We have an inordinate number of children who we serve, and we still have the largest platform of support to serve them, but it still falls tremendously short. A lot of those parents were trying to get resources and services that their children had a right to. One of the big things for us was helping parents understand their rights, transitioning across the legislation, educating parents, and giving them the tools and a way to be able to advocate for their children. 

A lot of times we found that parents didn't know the difference between the public and the charter schools. In the charter school space, there was a lack of transparency and accountability, so people who had kids in charter schools would sometimes return to public school. No one was taking the time to help people navigate that space. The system just wasn't parent friendly.

In your experience, where do you think some progress has been made over the past 20 years in terms how we're serving students and engaging parents in the community, and where are we still falling behind? 

In Detroit specifically, I think the stabilization of having an elected school board was something that we needed to get back. It created a different type of stability in the district, with a layer of accountability to the people. There has been tremendous improvement in creating systems and processes, both internal for the staff as well as for our stakeholders, and creating lots of platforms for people to rebuild the district together. That is huge for us, where people feel a level of ownership, confidence, and getting more investment in the system itself. 

One of the huge pieces of work that we've done is around the facilities. We had an external study done that showed that we needed about $500 million to deal with the dilapidating infrastructure that we have, and that if we didn't do anything for five years, that would grow to $1.5 billion. There's never been this intentional way to help our whole community understand what is happening with the education system, and where they can help add pressure and jointly make decisions around what we will do as a community. Those intentional efforts can only be led, and have been led, by a stable leader. 

I think where we still need to make progress, this breaks my heart, is just being child-centered. I still feel like we have a system that is more adult-centric than child-centric. There are political interests that try to align the two, and they're very different to me because what's good for children is not always convenient and good for adults. I quite frankly don't care. I think we always need to come out on the side of what is best for our children.

What's good for children is not always convenient and good for adults. I quite frankly don't care. I think we always need to come out on the side of what is best for our children.

You went from working at Detroit Parent Network to working in the school district. Talk a little bit about that experience of advocating for parents and families within the system, successes, and what challenges you face.

One of the ways that we built the family engagement work was based on best practices across the country. For instance, when we built leadership development work at Detroit Parent Network, we looked at models at that time across the country to help build that. It's all about self-actualization and building your network of support, and then giving people the tools to effectively communicate and advocate and navigate. 

Another best practice was the parent-teacher home visit, my favorite program. It's something that started out of Sacramento, California, as something that really reformed their whole community. We had run a few pilots with a few hundred children, but last year we had hundreds of teachers visit over 6,000 children in their homes. I do believe that no matter what the politics are for the day, if parents and teachers have a strong relationship, children do better, and the evidence and research bears that out.

I do believe that no matter what the politics are for the day, if parents and teachers have a strong relationship, children do better, and the evidence and research bears that out.

One of the things that we learned in the process of advocating for Detroit Public Schools is every progressive school district across this country has some form of a school leadership team. We call ours a school advisory council, with 19 stakeholders. We've resurged our alumni, and we have created a digital volunteer process to be more effective and efficient at on-ramping people who want to help.

For the first six months here, it was very distressing because I spent a lot of time going to specific schools because parents would call me and say, “they won't register my child,” or “they’re expelled.” There were these egregious situations where clearly there was just injustice happening, and our schools were still in a culture where people were doing whatever they wanted to do because they could. They weren't used to having a superintendent with a cabinet.

I spent six months going to every situation until it became clear that the principals were saying, “you don't want Sharlonda Buckman at your school,” and until it became clear that there was an accountability factor.  Dr. [Nikolai] Vitti, the superintendent, said to me, and still says this today, "I just let you do your thing." He understands that he can't watch every corner, and you need somebody to call light into situation. We always talk about how aligned we are when it comes to how we serve families, and that we owe them that.

Family and Community Engagement and customer service has improved. People know they can't treat people any kind of way. Outside of my department, there is a district-wide survey that goes out, where the parents get to evaluate the school, where the students get to evaluate the school. 

I love that. You can't hide anymore. Everybody has to be accountable, and we use data to drive those conversations. I'm telling you that is a gamechanger. If you didn't like parents or students before, and I know that sounds crazy, but we do have administrators and teachers who don't, you better pretend like it. Fake it till you make it, because your data is going to bear that out. Those kinds of transparency efforts for parents, who will never come to our school building, [gives them] an opportunity to direct feedback in terms of their experience, and everybody has to be accountable to address those things. I think over the long term, it will help us.

Everybody has to be accountable, and we use data to drive those conversations. I'm telling you that is a gamechanger.

Given the pandemic, it recently became clear that we could not easily transition to virtual learning because our families didn't have the systems, so we did distance-learning packets. Our superintendent, who was determined he was not going to do one-off computer donations, said, "We have to have a comprehensive strategy for every student in this district, or we don't need to do it." Now, we began a few weeks ago deployment of a tablet for every student in our district. That's one of the things that is a huge win for this community, and it's collaborative with the city and corporate partners in which we are also addressing the blackout areas. Talk about a comprehensive strategy.

Even with that, poverty is the X factor. Even with devices and resources in our communities, when you're dealing with high-poverty areas, virtual learning is not the answer for all of our students. Evidenced by the data that we retrieved from the process of going from distance-learning to virtual-learning, many of our students could not be accounted for through those systems. So, in essence, you could just assume that they maybe did the package, but didn't have a way to check in. Or you could assume that they're just completely checked out. Less than 50% of our kids we could document were actually engaged in those extenuating learning circumstances.

Poverty is the X factor. Even with devices and resources in our communities, when you're dealing with high-poverty areas, virtual learning is not the answer for all of our students.

What do you think are the biggest myths that people have about parents, either from the public or from the educator community?

I think the infamous “parents don't care about their children.” I find that you have to make parents human before people get it. If they're a parent, and in most cases they are, get them to think through their parent lens in order to penetrate this whole notion that parents don't care about their kids. I mean, barring substance abuse and mental health situations, most parents want the best for their children.

For many of the parents that I've talked to, their anger is focused on not feeling empowered to do for their kids what they need to do. Another myth is believing that you're the expert in the conversation when it comes to someone else's kid -- you're not. There are some things that I can tell you about my child that's going to make you a more effective teacher. I know because I delivered her. And, that’s probably why I favor the parent-teacher home visit program. 

How have you seen low expectations play out? How frequently do you see it, and how do you see that play out, especially for parents as you've worked with parents over the years and what that means for their kids?

I've seen it when parents don't know how to help, or what questions to ask or what to do. Even though they know what doesn't feel right, they don't know what else to do, so they just accept it, because they just don't know the pathway out.

We don't create the conditions, and our communities have changed so much. When I was a kid, I remember walking home during report card time and parents would be sitting out on the porch. We lived in a flat and you could hear the buzz of conversation, "Dave, that child is really smart." "Eugene is great at math.” “I bet she got all A's again." There was a public conversation about achievement and a consciousness there that you don't hear anymore. I think there's an absence of that because our communities are so disparate now, when people are so distressed and poverty has increased.

The scariest part of low expectations is subliminal, and it is a culture of low expectations, particularly as it aligns to Black and Brown children in urban communities where you have these public school systems in very impoverished areas. There's a culture there that you have to be very intentional and conscious about how to navigate. 

The scariest part of low expectations is subliminal, and it is a culture of low expectations, particularly as it aligns to Black and Brown children in urban communities where you have these public school systems in very impoverished areas. There's a culture there that you have to be very intentional and conscious about how to navigate.

What do we need to do to ensure our schools are high-performing and that students are well-served?

I will couch this specifically in terms of schools who are serving our neediest students. I think we need to take our best teachers, and we need to run our teacher contracts in placement like the NBA Draft. First round draft, you put the best teachers with the neediest students. I think that we have to figure out how to make teachers feel respected again. I think that would be second on my list in terms of this being an admirable field to go into. I think teachers have been beat up for so much for so long, that it's almost like, “be a teacher? I'm not doing that.”

Leadership matters. I had no idea that I would end up in this district, but I will tell you it's because I know compelling leadership when I see it. We have to continue to really be intentional about who we have leading education in every place across this country. We can't take for granted leaders who are compassionate, compelling, who know the work, who listen, and who lead with their heads and their hearts.

Leave your feedback with The Catalyst editors