Empowerment Through Advocacy: Jacquelyn Dortch

Empowering parents to advocate for their children is Jacquelyn Dortch’s job and passion.

She manages and teaches Stand University for Parents (Stand UP) at Stand for Children, a nationwide organization that empowers parents, teachers and community members to advocate for excellence in schools.

“It’s like professional development for parents,” Dortch says. Stand UP is testing the idea that involved parents can help Illinois students bridge the huge achievement gaps in math and reading scores. According to Stand for Children, only 32 percent of Illinois students are proficient readers by fourth grade and only 37 percent meet math standards. For minority students, the gap is even larger with just 6 percent of CPS students graduating from college by age 25.

Stand UP classes start with the jargon of education and what it means. “Many parents drop their children off at school and they don’t know that the school is a level 1, 2 or 3 or what teacher turnover is,” Dortch says. “Why should I be concerned that the third grade class has had three substitutes this year? Because it impacts learning.”

The curriculum continues through test scores, grades, the learning environment at home, student performance and responsibility. The principals talk to parents, but most important are the changes parents make at home. One mom told Dortch about setting aside Mondays as reading nights—no television. Another talked about sitting with her children and studying for her GED. She said, “I want to do my best and I want them to do their best.” They also talk about the path to college, and how parental expectations and written goals can make a difference.

When she talks about the curriculum, she’s passionate. But it’s the parents and their successes that make her job. She told me about one mom who was in court with her ex-husband in a dispute over their two children. “She told the judge, ‘I’m enrolled in a parent engagement class at our school. I’m doing everything I can to try and help my son.’ The kid was in the second grade and failing.” The mother completed Stand UP and then her ex-husband and current husband enrolled and also took the course.

“They both had perfect attendance and they both graduated, and they’ve come together. They learned that the failing grades were a direct impact of their inability to get along.” At the graduation, the mother spoke and performed a tribute dance to a gospel song. Standing in front of the stage were her children, ex-husband and husband. Not a dry eye in the house.

In the program’s inaugural year, Stand UP graduated more than 500 parents in three states. This spring, in Chicago, they plan to expand to 200 parents at four schools, and in the fall they will grow into 8 to 10 schools with more than 50 parents at each school.

And Dortch is the perfect person to lead this effort. She grew up in the Austin neighborhood, and she tells parents, “My parents were young, in fact my mother was just 15 years older than me, but one thing my mother did was she encouraged a love of reading in all of us.” The parents see Dortch as a role model, a success story. “They’re so used to people being put in front of them who don’t understand who they are or where they’ve come from.”

And Dortch is committed to giving parents the tools to help their children rise up to better futures. “Many times the people I meet, they lack education so the idea of coming in and empowering people through education, I was like, this is great!”