A Date with Data
Creating and Sustaining an Effective Partnership Between Delaware’s State Education Agency and the Parent Information Center
July 1, 2022
It's the age-old question: What’s the secret to a long-lasting, meaningful relationship? For Episode 5 of A Date with Data, we travel to the first state to find out. For 20 years, the Delaware Department of Education has partnered with the state’s Parent Information Center to better facilitate family engagement. How do these partners maintain their strong bond? Host Amy Bitterman sits down with Mary Ann Mieczkowski, Barbara Mazza, and Meedra Surratte to talk about collaboration, specific programs, and the importance of creating spaces where family voices can be heard. You don’t want to miss this engaging conversation.
Special Education/Delaware State Performance Plan Provide Feedback (doe.k12.de.us)

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### Episode Transcript ###

00:00:01.52  >> You're listening to "A Date with Data" with your host, Amy Bitterman.

00:00:07.34  >> Hey, it's Amy, and I'm so excited to be hosting "A Date with Data." I'll be chatting with state and district special education staff who, just like you, are dealing with IDEA data every day.

00:00:19.50  >> "A Date with Data" is brought to you by the IDEA Data Center.

00:00:24.83  >> So welcome. Today I am joined by Barbara Mazza, education associate with Exceptional Children Resources, and Mary Ann Mieczkowski, Director of Exceptional Children Resources, and they're both with the Delaware Department of Education. We also have Meedra Surratte, Executive Director of the Parent Information Center of Delaware, Inc. Mary Ann, let's start with you. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do?

00:00:50.83  >> I am the director of Exceptional Children Resources at the Delaware Department of Education. I have been in this role for 11 going on 12 years, and I lead the state in implementing IDEA.

00:01:11.40  >> Thank you. How about you, Barb?

00:01:14.89  >> My name is Barbara Mazza, and I'm an education associate and work underneath Mary Ann Mieczkowski, and one of the responsibilities I have is to work with our annual performance report where we report out on our progress, on how we're educating students with disabilities, and one of my passions as well as a focus looks at parent engagement and stakeholder engagement and making sure that people feel comfortable coming to the table.

00:01:43.92  >> Awesome, thank you. And, Meedra, share a little about yourself.

00:01:48.55  >> Sure. My name is Meedra Surratte. I'm the executive director of Parent Information Center of Delaware, and we are the PTI, or parent training and information, center for the state of Delaware as defined under IDEA. And so as many of you know, IDEA requires every state to have a PTI, or a parent training and information, center that focuses on providing support to parents of children with disabilities or special needs. PIC serves as the PTI. I've been with the organization going on 13 years, and I'm also the parent of three children, one of whom has special needs.

00:02:29.66  >> Okay. Thank you, all. We know the relationship between the state and the parent center is really so critical for many facets of what both of the organizations do but especially to help engage and facilitate that family involvement. Mary Ann, can you tell us about how you with the SEA and the parent center really collaborate in Delaware?

00:02:52.78  >> Yes. As you know, Delaware is a very small state, so people within the state of Delaware know each other. Our relationship from the Department of Ed goes back beyond 20 years with Parent Information Center because there was a close relationship between the director then, Mary Ann Agazanian, and the special ed directors from the Department of Ed. I left the department at that time 20 years ago and became an LEA director and continued that close relationship with Parent Information Center as I engaged on the ground with parents in an LEA, so that relationship was forged back then. As I became the state director of special education 11 years ago, I continued that relationship and have built an even stronger relationship with Meedra.

00:04:02.50  >> Wow, so you've been working together for a really long time and seem like you have an established, strong partnership in place which is wonderful, and it would be fantastic to hear some of the ways that you were able to establish that relationship, ways that you could recommend to other states and parent centers to really build those connections with each other. Mary Ann, do you want to start us off?

00:04:24.73  >> Well, I can begin by saying we meet, and meeting face-to-face is a very important strategy I believe. We meet on our territory, our turf at the department, and we also meet on Meedra's territory at Parent Information Center. It doesn't have to be one or the other. We meet when and where we feel necessary. But we've really tried to build that relationship bringing Parent Information Center into all of our conversations at the department regarding our indicators and where parents really need to be involved. We find points of intersection between the two of us. Meedra is a great thinker of how parents can be involved, and I believe ... I call Meedra up to say, "We have this issue. We really want the parent voice as we begin this work," so that relationship of just picking up the phone, texting, meeting in person is a very important strategy.

00:05:49.39  >> I just want to add to that. Understanding each other's role in our work and that relationship has really been critical. Our work has been intentional, and so our relationship, what has really driven our work and the activities and why it's been ... we've seen success is that Mary Ann is able to reach out to me at any time. We have open communication. She can ... When she mentions texts, we actually and often text each other at night, on the weekends, if there's an issue that comes up, if there is an event or if there's an opportunity to engage or meet with families. We are always thinking in terms of that common goal and how we can work in partnership to do that. So the relationship between our organizations but also personally as professionals has been critical to our work in supporting families.

00:06:49.07  >> Thanks. That's amazing, and it sounds like it's throughout the year in all areas that you're connecting and collaborating, not just maybe around indicator 8 or around stakeholder engagement for the SPP/APR, but it's just across the board maintaining those connections and communication.

00:07:09.12  >> Absolutely.

00:07:10.91  >> Can you tell me how you've been able to engage families in the SPP/APR process meaningfully, especially the families that are harder to reach and diverse families? I think, Meedra, did you want to start off?

00:07:24.60  >> Sure, so one thing I have to mention is that in our roles and in our role as a PTI, one of our goals is to reach those hard to reach families and underserved families, and the department has been really intentional about how are we intentional in reaching those families. So some of the things that were really important to me and then as mentioned, Mary Ann and I have had these discussions. The department, her staff and I have had conversations. It was very clear that we were authentically engaging families, that this was not just an opportunity to as you mentioned earlier to check a box because it's a specific need or it's required or an indicator. But it's really important to ... This work is really important, and what drives this work is the input from our families, and we have to find ways to get to those families to get this information in order to get their feedback. Added to that also equally important is that in order to get that feedback from our stakeholders, we have to build relationships with them, and so this cannot be a one-stop shop. It has to be multiple opportunities where we are intentional about reaching families. So through APR work in our role, we wanted to be intentional about providing multiple opportunities for families to get this information. There was a one-page summary that was developed by the department that was shared on our website. We also partnered to offer lunch-and-learn lessons that were available both during the day and in the evening to accommodate the schedules of families, but they were also available on demand and in multiple languages so that families could have access to them at all hours of the night. We understand that some families are maybe up at night and want to access this information and provide feedback. During those sessions, there was also an opportunity to click to complete a survey to answer questions, and there were a few questions to solicit that feedback from families as well. And I will also add what we also identified in this process, and we've had these ongoing discussions in our work, is that there's background information that parents need, that families need, that stakeholders need in order to provide meaningful information, and so we've also began to explore and to discuss, okay, where are other opportunities or other means to make sure that this is ongoing? We provide ongoing opportunities to get this information to families, and so we utilize our other stakeholder groups. We work in partnership with our state advisory panel, with our parent councils, district parent councils in the state so that families are hearing this information not only through the department, not only through PIC but also through other stakeholders and other organizations and our families as well and providing multiple opportunities for them to learn more about the information and provide meaningful input.

00:10:55.64  >> Great, so really trying to get the families where they're at and be as accommodating as possible to really meet their needs and busy schedules.

00:11:06.21  >> Absolutely.

00:11:08.08  >> Barbara, did you have anything to add?

00:11:11.38  >> Yes. In addition to the great work that we did through the lunch and learns with Meedra and her team, we wanted to make sure that we extended the reach as far as possible, so we utilized our website at the Department of Education to create a separate page for the SPP/APR input from all stakeholders but especially parents so that they could access it there also. And we worked with Parent Information Center to make sure and our internal communication folks to make sure that the information that was there was parent-friendly so that they could understand the big picture what the SPP/APR was and then specifically what the indicators were about. What did they mean? How do they connect to what parents are looking for in their student's education? So each indicator had an overview that was geared toward parents, and there was information about the targets and how we would set targets for the future and look for growth and student progress. And then there was a link where they could click on and provide input into not just the targets but also improvement activities. What should we be doing to get to our targets? And all the content was translated into Spanish and Haitian Creole, so it was available in three languages, and Parent Information Center posted it on their website for the link, and our own Department of Education sent out the information via social media using Facebook and Twitter as well as existing newsletters and other community communication tools that we had so that we could reach parents even further.

00:12:54.38  >> Wow, there's been so much great work going on, and that leads me to my next question which is, what are you planning for the future? How will you continue to engage families and build their capacity, especially around those improvement strategies and progress evaluation like you mentioned?

00:13:12.68  >> One of the things that we have planned and Meedra has been working with us on is, we have made great gains I think in engaging parents, but there's more work to be done, and one of the things we identified is there are going to be parents that may never come to us, so we need to start going to them. So we're going to be working and making connections with community centers such as the Boys & Girls Club. We have a Latin American community center in one of our cities, the United Way and other community resources that already work with parents and to engage them in conversations about, is it possible to work with them and work through them to bring parents in to do some focus groups and to really look at identifying, what are the barriers to parents engaging with the Department of Education, with LEAs, even attending IEP meetings? What are the barriers that keep them from participating so that we can start addressing them? For example, it might be that to join a stakeholder group for an indicator, it might be intimidating, and so maybe an outgrowth of that could be that we could meet with parents ahead of time and share the content of the meeting and the agenda and kind of generate some conversation with them on questions they might have and how they could feel comfortable asking them so just different things like that so that we make sure that we provide every opportunity, and we create a climate that's inclusive to parents regardless of their educational background, their socioeconomic background because they all want the best for their children.

00:14:49.07  >> Absolutely, and I love that tactic of asking what are the barriers because you at the state or even the parent center might have in mind, okay, these are what we think the barriers are, but then once you talk to the families, things end up being maybe very different than what you expected, so that sounds like a really great strategy.

00:15:07.01  >> So I just wanted to add to Barb's point that facilitating parent engagement is not a one-stop shop, and I mentioned this earlier. It requires ongoing assessing and reassessing, and we do that. We are really intentional, very intentional about looking at implementing a process or an activity and assessing if it worked, reaching out to our stakeholders, soliciting their feedback. Was this effective this time of day the information that was being provided to you? Even down to the content and some aspects, do you understand the information that's on the one-pager? How could we update this information, or how could we better articulate this information for you? Because in our role as a parent center, we're talking to parents often, and so that's an opportunity to share that information with parents when they contact us. That information is also displayed on our website. We can also articulate that information or connect them to the department for someone to articulate the information if they have additional questions. And so it's been an ongoing process, and I think that's important for the audience to know that this is not one activity or one-stop shop. There are multiple opportunities for ongoing assessment and changing the activities or the resources that are going to be provided to families. So for example, we worked together a few years ago to provide a postcard reminder about the parent engagement survey, and this would be presented to families or provided to families at the student's IEP meeting to increase the response rate, and it wasn't successful. We thought that it was a well thought out plan. We thought that this would be a great opportunity to increase the response rate around the parent engagement survey, but it was not, and so that was an opportunity for us to come back to the drawing board and to identify other ways to continue to work and identify, reassess and identify other ways to get this information to families up to and including most recently the parent survey and a video that we developed in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole that was posted on the department's website as well as other social media platforms as well. So it's just important to know that to constantly assess and reassess the effectiveness of the tools and the activities, the stakeholder engagement and the parent engagement activities to make sure that they are in fact effective and impactful and then make changes where necessary.

00:17:54.08  >> Thanks, Meedra. And you all have been talking about some great I think successes that you have seen over the years working together. Can you share something that you're especially proud of related to this partnership and stakeholder engagement? And I'll start with Mary Ann.

00:18:12.18  >> Well, I want to reiterate everything that Meedra and Barbara have said. What I'm very proud of is we have enhanced our system very specific to stakeholder and parent engagement. We've enhanced the system of collecting data and analyzing data, and it goes back to what Meedra said. We can collect the data, but if we don't analyze it and really see what worked and what didn't work and how we can enhance it even further, it wouldn't be to either of our benefits, but because we're on the same wavelength of thinking, it's kind of exciting when we meet together because we're throwing out ideas of ways that we can even take the system to a higher level. So we know in our heart of hearts if we identify opportunities for communication and feedback, this will result in greater parent engagement, and we're proud of the work that we've done this past year in thinking of ways that we can reach parents even greater. So as Barb said, we created a stakeholder engagement report which has every bit of the input and feedback that we've received from our stakeholders, and it's posted on our website for all to see, and it gives us the basis for moving forward with this analysis and with improvement activities.

00:19:57.58  >> This is also an opportunity for us to collect data at all levels of engagement as well on our end, and so then we can utilize this to share, provide that feedback to Mary Ann and her team to say, "This is the data that we were able to provide," and it allows us to put our heads together to continue the work and make improvements, continuous improvement on our common goals to serve families and to reach families. I would also add through the lunch-and-learn meetings that parents had direct access to the Department of Ed staff, and that is an excellent opportunity for families that's not typical, but in our state, I have to say I'm proud that that's something that we have been able to be a part of and provide that direct access to families, and families have even reported the ease of and the level of comfort of being able to just share their concerns, how the staff were approachable. That means a lot to families. It makes all the difference, especially in this space when we are ... which is not always a comfortable space for families of children with disabilities or special needs. It's not always a comfortable space, and so to have that opportunity where families and stakeholders have direct access to the staff, can ask questions, where they're able to provide feedback and have that ongoing dialogue is a really awesome opportunity and proud that we're able to provide that to our families in the state.

00:21:46.49  >> Great. I'm curious about the lunch-and-learn meetings. Would you share a little bit more about what those looked like? Were they focused on particular topics, or was it more like, parents can drop in, and you have Department of Ed staff there to kind of chat, answer questions?

00:22:02.99  >> So we had held the lunch-and-learn meetings around the indicators for stakeholders feedback, but this is not the first time that we've held lunch-and-learn meetings in other capacities or for families. So we've held focus groups where families and stakeholders have had access to speak with department staff, so it's typically a specific reason where it's not just a drop-in call. It's a specific reason that we're soliciting feedback. But again, it's one of many activities to build those ongoing ... strengthen those ongoing relationships with families, to put a name with a face and, again, to have that dialogue with the staff directly. If there are questions, concerns, dispel any myths, whatever the issue may be, it's an excellent opportunity for families.

00:23:04.23  >> Yeah, it sounds like it.

00:23:05.28  >> This is Mary Ann, and I also think that through these lunch and learns, we have communicated to families that their voice matters to us, that we can't do our work without having the relationship with parents and having their voice being heard. So we came to those meetings with that in mind so that it was very authentic engagement with them to express that we are ... It's very important to solicit their input and feedback.

00:23:47.10  >> Wonderful. It sounds like a theme throughout this whole conversation and the work you do is really building those strong relationships, whether it's between the state and the parent center, families and the state but gaining trust and showing that you are listening, and it's not just checking off a box like you said. It's, you really want to hear what they have to say and will do something with that information to make improvements. Thank you all so much for joining us today and taking part in this conversation. It was such a fascinating dialogue, and I know states will be so excited to listen to this and will pick up on ideas for how states and parent centers can really build stronger partnerships in this work together.

00:24:31.39  >> To access podcast resources, submit questions related to today's episode or if you have ideas for future topics, we'd love to hear from you. The links are in the episode content. Or connect with us via the podcast page on the IDC website at ideadata.org.