DANBURY, Conn. – When Rachel Chaleski, a parent of two students in the Western Connecticut Academy for International Studies Elementary Magnet School, started taking classes at the Parent Leadership Training Institute in Danbury around this time last year, she had already been pushing to overturn a decision to take away sibling enrollment preference for Danbury residents.
“I had created and was formulating a petition, and several parents and I spoke at board of ed meetings. We rallied together, and it wasn’t really making any progress until I took the course, took PLTI, and then it took off,” Chaleski said. “And before the course had ended, the board of ed had gone back on their decision.”
Chaleski’s experience is a model for what can happen with the PLTI program, which is kicking off its 20th year in Danbury on Saturday with a full-day retreat at its new Families Network of Western Connecticut location.
The 20-week course is “designed to transform parents as change agents for children,” said coordinator Katherine Tucker, a Chicago transplant who took the course herself in 2008 to help familiarize herself with the community and how it works..
Through the course, participants learn how to present ideas, how to develop coalitions of support, how the local government and the law works, and get an understanding of policy and program budgets -- “things that would make local changes happen,” Tucker said.
After the first week, the class of about 20 meets weekly on Thursdays. They get dinner from 5-6 p.m., then dive into the program from 6-9 p.m. Speakers have included the mayor and other elected officials, the school superintendent and members of the local media.
As part of the process, each participant, who is chosen through an application and interview process, is asked to participate in a community project. The projects vary “depending on what’s important to the interests of the participant,” Tucker said.
Chaleski said the biggest thing she took away from the course is that parents have a valuable voice in advocating for their children, and that it can be effective, as her experience has shown.
For incoming participants, she advises that they come to every class and leverage the connections they make with one another -- who go on to become “a secret network of very supportive parents” -- and others in positions of power.
Chaleski is planning to continue her advocacy work by pushing for a charter school in Danbury.
“Don’t let your advocacy stop once the class ends,” she said.