We did a study circle in the last year and there’s this parent came up to me afterwards and she said this was the first meeting that I’ve come to where I felt like you wanted to hear my voice. Building relationships and establishing trust are critical to making progress on issues addressed in dialogue-to-change programs. And it wasn’t that she hadn’t come to meetings before – she’s been to meetings before but it was really that she felt like she had a voice and that people wanted to hear from her. The Montgomery County, Md., school district implemented a dialogue-to-change program to help remove racial and ethnic barriers to student achievement and parent involvement. The program has been running for over 10 years, engaging thousands of administrators, teachers, students and parents in “study circle” dialogues. As a Spanish speaker, she struggled with English and she just didn’t feel that the school really valued that and it really hit me hard because I remember growing up my mom didn’t know how to speak English until I was in Middle School/High school around when I was 13/14 when she learned. So this was at a middle school and this was a women that had very similar demeanor that my mom does. This approach to change has transformed many people’s relationships with the school system, students and parents. I’m doing this work and its helping people to just feel like they’re connected and if something like this could’ve happened like this when I was little it would’ve had a bigger impact on me. Our goal is to bring parents, teachers, students, administrators, superintendents – everybody together from different racial and ethnic backgrounds to build relationships, talk and have honest conversations about their experiences around race, stereotypes, skin color and how those issues impact student achievement and parent involvement. How do they impact the way teachers teach, the way parents are involved the way students learn. When we go into a community we tell them that we’re not here to fix you, we’re not here to teach you or tell you the right or wrong way of doing things. What we’re here is really creating that space and that process – asking those questions that really get people to talk to one another. There’s already been a lot of changes over the years to the policies – it’s helping them really understand how their practices, how their different issues impact the school. We did the study circle that was in both English and Spanish – they were all Latino ESL students – where they really built those relationships and started talking about those issues. And then we did a study circle with those students and the school staff so it was half students, half staff. All the students said that the teachers don’t care about them and by the end of the study circle the kids changed their perceptions of that because they began to get to know each other on a much more emotional level. We talked to some of the teachers later on – a few months later – and they said all of those students were doing better and they were all coming to them for help and they were engaging with them. And the teachers were beginning to change their practices to address some of those concerns that came up in the study circle. At one particular school a principal came in brand new and she was met with a lot of resistance from the community only because I think she had some big shoes to fill. The parents were actually the ones that were actually probably the most resistant to her coming in and trying to change things and moving through the whole study circles process they came out a stronger group and she actually had the parent support that she had never had had back her and challenge her as well. It wasn’t just ‘oh I have a group of parents that now support me’ but – yes that was one thing but she was able to kind of use them as a sounding board and really hear from her parents and what kind of needs that they have within that community. We’re continuing to do the same kind of study circles in helping different schools but we’re also working more with leadership teams I think that that’s where our direction is because that’s where the most impact can come in. We’re also working with departments – so the curriculum department had never really addressed these issues together and talked about about how their curriculum is impacting African American and Latino students versus White and Asian students. You know, are they having those kind of conversations. When the leadership is making decisions they’re beginning to hear the voices of parents, the teachers, the students who are participating in these study circles. It’s inspiring to see the parents feel empowered or have a student have their voice heard or have a staff member kind of have a realization and I think all those little things really add up to the bigger change I guess people in the school system are trying to make.