On Thursday, November 25th we hosted a meeting at the University of the Incarnate Word for representatives from each collaborating partnership in Precious Minds, New Connections (PMNC). The meeting was designed as the first in a series of meetings that are meant to engage individuals in conversation and dialogue. We believe that in order to truly affect the life of every child in our area in a positive way, we have to begin to harness and leverage our intelligence and experience. With over a year of experience, it is time to share ideas, ask questions, brainstorm solutions and create a collective energy.
Participants: For the November 25th meeting, individuals with hands-on and working knowledge of the PMNC program were invited. From each partnership, we invited two parent educators, one administrator, and one person responsible for data entry. We wanted individuals who truly had working knowledge of the PMNC program to attend so that participation would be lively! Over 100 people (including Kronkosky Charitable Foundation staff and 9 Executive MBA students from UTSA) attended.
Agenda: The morning began with brief presentations by staff members in order to give an overview and update on several projects. The remainder of the day was spent in small and large group discussions that were facilitated by 9 Executive MBA students from UTSA.
Summary: This meeting was well timed in the course of PMNC's evolution. The participants on November 25th could easily remember their initial enthusiasm (or as one individual called it, their innocence), but they had enough on-the-job and real-time problem solving to know what kind of assistance they needed in order to do their jobs better and make PMNC more successful. Several important themes were discussed within the context of nearly every question posed for discussion. Based upon the valuable information shared with us on November 25th, we have developed substantial directions for where Precious Minds, New Connections will go in 2004.
We started with a presentations from Palmer Moe (review of Year 1 through 3 accomplishments), Nancy Villa (demonstration of web-based data entry/report system and Megan Kromer (logic behind KCF data collection requirements and future directions for evaluation.)
Large Group Discussion: What Is and Isn’t Working?
The participants were divided into four groups and each group was facilitated by two EMBA students. The format for this session was to simply ask: What is working well within PMNC? People answered spontaneously and their answers were recorded on large sheets of paper that were posted on the wall. After everything was said that was going to be said, another question was asked: What is NOT working so well within PMNC? Again, answers were spontaneous and were recorded.
Small Group Discussions:
After lunch we had small group discussions that were centered on three questions. People met in groups of eight, discussed each question and each group then shared their top two insights with the entire audience. Each question was posed, discussed and shared before moving on to the next question.
The questions and the rationale for each were:
- Think back to the beginning of Precious Minds, New Connections and when you first received funding…what about this program was most exciting to you?
We asked this question to help people remind themselves and get in touch with their initial enthusiasm. While no lack of enthusiasm was expected, it is important that people remember the beginning. We believe we are making history with PMNC and the recounting of that history is important in order to build a strong foundation (no pun intended) for the future.
- Now that you have been involved for over a year, what have been the surprises? What have been the unexpected challenges?
We wanted to allow frustrations, obstacles, unanticipated outcomes and successes to emerge on equal footing and within a framework that encouraged discussion. We also felt that by asking open-ended questions we would find themes and common trends. Every effort was made to suspend our own assumptions and projections and to allow those at ground-zero to openly express their perceptions.
- In order to generate energy and learn from each other, how can we develop a Learning Community? What would a Learning Community look like to you? What are other options for creating and sustaining energy?
As was already mentioned, this meeting was designed as a “first in a series”; but, it was important to also check this assumption. Did the people working with parents and implementing PMNC feel the need or have the desire to develop a learning community? How did they think they best benefit from each other? While we firmly believe that sharing information, reducing “competition” between agencies and developing a stronger community dedicated to parents and children is important, the method in which this is done must have everyone’s input.
Closing the Day
After the small group discussions, we organized back into the groups we started with in the morning. We asked people to share their thoughts to one question: What do you know now — after being at this meeting today and having the conversations with each other — that you did NOT know before the day started. We felt it important that people give time to thinking about and articulating their feelings about a day devoted to their own thoughts and reflections. People volunteered their answers, one at a time. Thanks to the participants, this turned out to be an inspiring and moving way to end the day.
What We Learned
Recruitment: The difficulty of recruiting parents was the most frequently expressed frustration. Not only were those involved frustrated, but they were also surprised at how much more difficult it was to recruit parents than they ever had imagined. Some experienced little to no problems (either due to “captive” audiences or because of pre-existing connections with parent groups), but most felt that their original proposals had not adequately addressed effective methodologies for recruitment.
Ongoing Parent Education: Interestingly, many parents who attend classes do NOT want to leave when it is over! After six or eight sessions, they have learned a lot, they have met other parents, and they are in community. They don’t want to graduate! This is an interesting dilemma, but it is of great concern to those who are face-to-face with the parents. After all, the educators know that those who have a small infant will essentially have a completely different child to deal with in just a few short months! It is very difficult to turn an eager parent away when you know that there will be so many new questions in a very short time.
Public Awareness and Publicity: The lack of awareness of the importance of parenting education, early childhood development and the importance of the first three years of life is not as well known as we like to think. Individual agencies do not have the expertise and are not adequately funded to develop logos and launch media campaigns. In addition, publicizing individual programs is difficult from the “ground zero” position – it appears fraught with self-interest.
Training: One of the best methods for retaining parents (i.e., preventing drop-out) is to have well-trained parent educators. Each curriculum we selected provides excellent training, but the need for more is essential. Ongoing training from the curricula developers is needed to keep educators up-to-date and to train new educators. But, the need for training extends beyond just this. Educators need more specialized training to be better able to deal families -- many educators are simply not prepared to deal with the chaotic family structures and environments of those in their classes. Educators also know that it is important for them to learn more about clever ways to use to music, play, and language (to name but a few things) in a child’s life. The curricula we are using are superb, but in many ways they only scratch the surface. If parents are going to continue to learn, the educators must be ahead of them on the curve.
Communication and Community: The need for better (more consistent, complete, ongoing) communication between partners (and funders) was expressed. On November 25th, so many of the participants were surprised to see how many others were involved with PMNC – and yet we had invited only a small portion of all of those involved. The need to clearly understand the mission of PMNC, the desire to know the partners, the need to have information and problem solve was unquestionable. It is critically important that we have a time and place to share our stories (successes and failures) and to celebrate our accomplishments. If we do not take the time for these things, we will lose the most valuable way we have to make and change history. Finally, because of the commitment of the foundation and the dedication of so many hard workers, San Antonio has the potential to be the national leader in the development of “best practices” – but only if we are communicating with each other clearly and often. The development of a strong community of professionals and para-professionals could also attract and secure other resources to help in accomplishing the goal.
Information and Knowledge: The PMNC partners have been eager to please and have adjusted to many changes in the requirements of the foundation. While the praise for the foundation is high, we did ask for suggestions … and we got them.
- Decisions about many policies seem to be made during individual conversations with specific grantees. Someone calls with a question, an answer is given, but not everyone gets the same answer.
- Not everyone is clear on the mission, vision and goal of PMNC. This makes for confusion among PMNC partners; and, lack of clarity among foundation staff can lead to decisions that are not consistent with one another.
- Reporting requirements have been confusing.
- PMNC partners are interested in developing evaluation plans and reports that are meaningful.