School Change Starting with Parent Empowerment with Ann Smith
January 17, 2023
School Change Starting with Parent Empowerment with Ann Smith

Schools won’t change on their own, often needing a push from concerned educators, community members and, most importantly, parents. But too often parents don’t know how to get involved or how to speak out on behalf of their children.

Thankfully there are tools and resources out there to help parents understand their rights (and the rights of their children) and learn how to talk to policymakers and educational leaders about ensuring their children get the education they deserve. One of those organizations is African Caribbean American Parents of Children with Disabilities (AFCAMP), led by Executive Director Ann Smith. Ann joins me on the podcast this week.

We need more parents as educational advocates if we’re going to make real change happen. And the more they learn, the more comfortable they are with speaking up for their children and for the community as a whole. Ann shares what those resources are and why they’re so incredibly important.

About Ann Smith, JD, MBA:

Ann R. Smith, JD, MBA is a “change-maker” who can speak to the importance of engaging families, youth, and community to address inequitable policies and practices that produce disparate outcomes across the intersecting education, juvenile justice, and health (physical / behavioral / mental) systems.

Ann is Executive Director of African Caribbean American Parents of Children with Disabilities, Inc. (AFCAMP) commonly known as AFCAMP Advocacy for Children, a parent-led nonprofit organization headquartered in Hartford, CT. For 20+ years AFCAMP has provided resources, training and advocacy to promote authentic family and youth voices to inform decision-making within child-serving systems including education, juvenile justice, child welfare and children’s behavioral health.

Pursuing equity fuels AFCAMP’s work to transform systems and reduce the adverse and disproportionate impacts experienced by youth of color and youth with disabilities. A multi-level approach is employed to reform systemic policies and practices that proliferate inequitable education, justice, health, and economic outcomes for children and families of color with a particular focus on those that are Black.

Ann currently serves as a Tri-Chair of the Connecticut Children’s Behavioral Health Plan Implementation Advisory Board. She also serves on other advisory bodies and nonprofit boards of directors. She held multiple roles over 16 years of service with the State of Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) and its predecessors. Ann is also an attorney licensed by the State of CT.

Jump in the Conversation:

[1:34] – Where school transformation began for Ann
[2:48] – Parents don’t always know their rights
[4:32] – Community Parent Resource Center
[5:50] – Find out about your own state’s resource center
[8:18] – Where to begin in gaining empowerment
[10:55] – How the system encourages and accepts parents and youth
[13:01] – When families are actively involved, the process of education with their kids, the outcomes are better
[21:14] – Turbo Time
[22:49] – What you need to know about parent engagement
[24:33] – Ann’s Magic Wand
[26:19] – Maureen’s Takeaways

Links & Resources



Maureen O’Shaughnessy 0:03
Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at education evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it, and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of education, evolution, micro school coalition, and co founder of active, I consult and train with schools and leaders who are fiercely committed to changing the narrative, reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children and prepares them to thrive. If you are new, welcome to the podcast, please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:08
Hi Ann, it is so good to have you with us on education evolution.

Ann Smith 1:13
Thank you. I’m very excited for the opportunity to be able to speak with you today.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:19
And listeners. today I’m chatting with Ann Smith, the executive director of African Caribbean, American parents of children with disabilities at camp and is a powerful advocate for children. And I’m always curious, we know our schools must evolve to serve all learners. Where did this story of school transformation begin for you?

Ann Smith 1:44
I believe it began for me when I had the responsibility to advocate for a young family member who needed to receive certain services from public education. And so I myself went through that process. And so that was some of the benefits that I have, in terms of my work experience and training. It was quite a challenge to navigate that system, and instilled in me this passion to help others who might not have had those advantages, to be able to gain more skills, and experience and confidence to be able to interface with the special education system

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 2:32
that is so powerful. A lot of times, parents don’t feel like they can engage. And maybe there’s an advocate to help the student. But for you to help parents gain this skill set has this wonderful ripple effect. So tell us what have you created? What is F camp?

Ann Smith 2:49
Well, first of all, I want to acknowledge our our fun, our founder, or our founder, Michael Jackson, she was a social worker who was during an internship. And she is responsible for what happened is today. Unfortunately, she left us 10 years ago, however, her spirit and her work that she infused into AFF camp continues. So what she discovered was that the parents in this particular school system really didn’t have any knowledge around what their rights are under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And so that’s kind of where it started. And that gave way over the years to really taking a look at all of the different systems that might impact on a family’s ability to provide the services that the child needs to be able to what our mission is to be able to educate, empower, and engage parents and community to improve quality of life for children with special education needs, but also for other children who are at risk of education system because they’re intimidated, none of them stand alone.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 4:17
That is so powerful, and so true. So if there’s any inequity whether it pertains to a disability or not, we need to be paying attention to all of that. Tell us about your Community Parent Resource Center,

Ann Smith 4:32
where we’re very fortunate to have been able to be successful in a national competition that was sponsored by the United States Department of Education, the Office of Special Education Programs. Out there are two types of parents centers under Ida. There is a PTI which is statewide we do have one and then as we’ll see PRC, your Community Parent Resource Center, which can have a narrower focus. And that focus can be narrowed across very different metrics or diameters. And you could be geographic, it could be a certain population. And we have, we have over well over 100 centers throughout the country, every state has at least one parent center. And we have also in our territories,

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 5:31
that’s powerful. I don’t think a lot of us have even heard that these parents centers exist, I feel like a lot of the parents I come in contact with feel alone and like they don’t have resources to help them understand the special education world. So how would people find out about Community Parent Resource Centers?

Ann Smith 5:54
Well, there is actually a website that we can send them to. And I know that this is an ad pass, and I’m trying to understand how we might best provide that resource morning, but we can give the link to work calm, the sipo is the Center for parent information and resources. And it can be reached, center pop back on. And there’s a wealth of resources there for anyone is parents and professionals who might want some additional information about special education for parents centers. But then also, there’s a way for you to find the parent center in your state.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 6:45
Fantastic, I will be sure to put that link in our show notes, along with your F camp link, so that people will have different resources that they can go to.

Ann Smith 6:55
Absolutely, we would very much appreciate that the word out to the family. So they know that the health is there. And then I know when we were first looking at this opportunity, it is not limited to just the special education well, because we have a lot of challenges in general education, also. And so what another resource that you might share with families, there are centers that are called statewide family engagement centers. And this program also is something that is funded by the United States Department of Education. And not every state has that. Connecticut is fortunate, though, that they do have a partnership with our State Department of Ed, and our lead grantee and several partner agencies, we happen to be one of them. And that is really focused on how do we empower parents, and also youth to be engaged in the education process, so that it can improve academic outcomes.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 8:08
And that is so important. And I like that you say youth too, because I know a lot of our youth are very capable if they’re given the tools. So if a youth or a parent were to come into your community resource center, where would you begin? How would you help them start to have that empowerment?

Ann Smith 8:28
Well, the first step for us is to do a screening during our intake to identify whether, in fact, they are falling into the criteria for our particular health centers, or centers, we’ll take a look at that. We have certain criterias that we have written into our grant applications. But we’re going to want to take a look at whether the child Where is the child in terms of their journey of special education, parents centers, are charged under Ida to serve from zero to age 26. And of course, a form a full range of disabilities. So it is a task to just identify where parents are and parents come in at very different places. Some parents, it’s right at the beginning. You know, when we speak about that, speaking about the beginning, one of the things that is really important is that there’s early identification of a child who may not be meeting their developmental benchmarks and who may need assistance. But what we know is that the earlier the interventions and services are put into place, the better the outcomes are overall. So early identification early childhood on All of those connections, pre K, kindergarten, making sure that they get connected to the special education system, if that is what they need is very important. But I also would share that outside of the special education arena, it is very important still to have that growly engagement, early, early literacy, helping the children to be able to lead the early numeracy, helping them to interact with the other peers. On soccer, early education is very important, regardless of whether it is general education or special education, we want to give our young students the best start that they can get.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 10:48
Absolutely. As you’re helping parents understand the system. Are there common gaps that you find in their knowledge or understanding? Are there key things that you wish they knew?

Ann Smith 11:03
I think rather than looking at it as gaps in their knowledge, that’s a part of it. I think it’s it’s important for us to look at, how does the system even encourage them, except now, so we were looking at family engagement, I think was one of the focus areas for our conversation. And this is just very, very critical, because who knows the children better than their family, right. And unfortunately, systems do not always credit family members, with being important players in the process. And so many times it’s the professional. And many, many times, professionals do see one aspect of a child’s presentation. But the family may see a different presentation. And that’s for a number of different reasons. We can talk about it in terms of looking at it through this equity lens, looking at how the cultural perspective is very important. And so when you’re looking at a system that doesn’t take into account, or doesn’t value on different cultural backgrounds, perspectives, languages, economic status, and cultural values, that disconnect makes it difficult for parents to engage at believe there has been an increased focus on family engagement across multiple systems, all child serving systems need to be thinking about that. And so it’s important because we know that when families are actively involved in the process of education with their kids, the outcomes are better.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 13:09
Absolutely wraparound support when we’re all on that team supporting the child. That’s the ideal I completely agree. Do you find after parents have some tools that they end up having more confidence to become advocates?

Ann Smith 13:26
Absolutely, we do see that. We look at our parents, and we may go in with them initially into and this has been the special education arena into one of their meetings. And we have taken the opportunity to kind of walk them through, we do some trainings as well, I must say that the pandemic, some impact on our ability to do in person and the capacity to ramp up virtually is something that we’ve all been in that situation where we’re trying to we have to learn to develop that and that we’re doing that now. And it is also important to understand that there are there are barriers for some families to even engage in terms of the virtual participation. So go it’s welcome that we are moving back to in person. And what we find is when parents have the knowledge, the tools, the encouragement, to be able to advocate for themselves for what the children need. It does boost their confidence. Once they’ve had an opportunity to interface with the system and be respected for what they bring to the table. They want to share that with other parents they want to be involved, and they want to have opportunities to engage with leadership with educators, not just them, education system, but all of the systems that they interact with. So for example, they may have interactions with behavioral health, physical health, unfortunately, there is still a very tiny time between academic challenges and failures of education systems that lead our children into the juvenile justice system. Many times, so there’s a link there as well. So when I referenced earlier that it’s multiple systems, those are just some of them. Some children may be involved with developmental disabilities, intellectual development, intellectual disabilities. So the thing that’s really exciting is when a parent gains that level of confidence that they can advocate in any system, and that they no longer feel that they are not able to express themselves when speaking with policymaking adults two sided model, because there’s work that the systems have to do to make authentic family engagement a reality. And we are seeing more and more where school districts and schools themselves public schools, where I’m speaking to here, are really making efforts towards authentic family engagement, more than just the PTO meeting more than just come in and meet your teacher. You know, we’re looking at opportunities that are being presented for family members to actually participate in the development of policies and programs, take active roles in helping to define on a positive note, how the school are climbing things and to and to feel welcomed into a school as opposed to feeling that they don’t add?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 17:25
Absolutely, it definitely has to be a two way conversation. And I think sometimes agencies forget to encourage that authentic voice.

Ann Smith 17:35
Yes, absolutely. They are making their own. There’s reason to be hopeful. Yes, for example, we’re also seeing when some were funders, and regulatory agencies, and looking more closely and making more requirements for under to be affecting count and James, nice difference systems. So you, we can see that across education. But we can also see that, for example, where we have System of Care values that are costing behavioral health, we have, you know, instead of just looking at the actual professionals evaluation and assessment of the child, there are family members who are assisting with that work, peer support specialists who are given that. And so it really is something that will help the outcomes for all who are engaged because it also then gives that certain service providers, the educators an opportunity to interact with family members, in a way that they might not otherwise have had a chance to do. Yeah. And what we find is, many times when those authentic engagement opportunities take place, there are connections that are made between educators and parents. And when educators and parents are connecting when the educators community cating with the parents, around more than just we have problems with Johnny today, I need for you to come and get home, which poses a lot of challenges for many families who then have to leave work and go pick up the child. And there are some specific there are some specific regulations that address that in IDA in particular, but it happens outside of that, when we’re looking at how parents can understand what their children are doing in school. We’re seeing a lot more of that communication happening between the school and the family. More so than just sending your paper home. are bringing it back and saying, you know, the Japan look at it, but a lot more robust, authentic engagement and communication, where parents can reach out to the teachers and teachers can reach out and communicate with the parents, I would say that might be one of the things. One thing that might have come out of COVID and virtual that worked well, in some cases, not old enough cases. But it’s something that I believe, coming out of the pandemic is being explored more and more with public schools. How do they communicate with parents? And where can technology be an aid to that, as opposed to a barrier, to have salutely,

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:48
I’m encouraged to by this increased communication and a desire for authentic conversations to really unpack solutions and not just list problems. What you are doing is so powerful, I would love to pivot now and just get to know you a bit more. It’s always exciting to know the person behind the initiative. May I ask you a few turbo time questions?

Ann Smith 21:14
Certainly go right ahead.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:17
And what’s the last book you read?

Ann Smith 21:20
The last book that I read? Well, I’m going to tell you that I don’t do a lot of reading, I tried to do enough to keep on top of the topics and the work that I have to do. But I would have to say that the last book that I read, it would be my Bible, because that’s what really gives me the focus that I knew the encouragement that I need to do this work.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:46
Yes, that’s so important, because you give so much you have to receive and recharge your own batteries. So I think that’s beautiful. How about two inspirational folks you’d love to meet?

Ann Smith 22:01
Inspirational? No, I would love to meet. I never did get a chance to do that. But I think power to have a chance to actually have a conversation with Maya Angelou, I would like to have done now. She she had an impact on on civil rights. Right, if people are not aware of, but she, she was very powerful, not only in her little her little bow, but others and she just had. She just had a beautiful way with words. And I love that piece of it. If I were to have to do a second person, I think we have a challenge on that. So I’m gonna pass.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 22:49
Absolutely. What’s the biggest thing you wish folks knew about parent engagement

Ann Smith 22:56
that you have every right to expect that you can interact with your child’s educators with with the school system, and that there is a positive relationship that can be built? No, I do understand. And I think we’re all hearing that there is there is some negativity, when that is not entered into with the positive outcome come as the goal, but where the authentic collaboration is the goal for the purpose of improving the academic outcomes for the students, then I believe that that’s where parent and family engagement is very powerful and is very much needed. We just do have to strike that.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:53
Absolutely. And what is something that most people don’t know about you?

Ann Smith 23:59
That most people don’t know what I probably mean for the matches? I love to garden because that’s another that’s another activity that keeps me connected on spiritually. So yes, I like to go

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 24:18
love it. Yes. Yeah, there’s a lot to gardening that people don’t know if they’re not gardeners. I agree. So I enjoy closing with a magic wand moment. So and if I were to give you a magic wand, what would you wish for in terms of student rights and parent engagement?

Ann Smith 24:40
If we had that magic wand, I would want it to sprinkle fairy dust across every public school system such that they created an environment that was welcoming to the collaboration between them Parents, new educators are the same goal, which is improved academic achievement, equitable academic access resources that have been made available to everyone so that the opportunity to gain from any academic instruction that’s being provided is not impeded by structural and systemic barriers.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 25:36
Yes, let’s have some of that fairy dust. I agree. And thank you so much for being our guest today on education evolution.

Ann Smith 25:46
Well, then thank you for this opportunity. I am very much pleased that you reached out to me and I had this opportunity to speak. I know that we are going to share the resources then spoke about those opportunity to share some more Well, I’m happy to do so if you can reach out to me so people can find us

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 26:13
Fantastic. Thanks, Ann.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 26:24
If you are anything like me, you had no idea about many of the resources and was speaking about. I didn’t know that the US Department of Education funds parent resource centers. I also didn’t know that there were resources available until age 26. A lot of our special ed funding in Washington State ends at the 21st birthday, or the end of the school year following the 21st birthday. So I love getting to learn more. And finding out that there are these resource centers in every state. How wonderful that we can create parent advocates, and then those advocates continue to help others. This grassroots effort is so important in creating authentic conversations between the full team of supporters of each child. That’s one of the things I love about our micro school. It is wonderful to be able to talk with parents, our school specialists are teachers, outside specialists, and oftentimes pulling in the student. This wraparound support is needed for a holistic perspective. And for synergy around creating an ideal learning community. And an eye I are both advocates of lavish fairy dust, her magic wand wish that we could sprinkle fairy dust over every school district and create an environment that is welcoming collaborative, one where parents and use then educators that are all pulling together is beautiful. We want to help maximize student achievement, and make sure we have equitable access. And everybody has access to resources, a wonderful wish. Let’s all find ways that we can be collaborating and creating this reality for our learners and schools. And thank you for being a part of the education evolution.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 28:39
I know how challenging it is to make changes inside your own school or community. I’ve spent years working with schools around the world on creating learner centered programs. And it always struck me how much schools were able to get done with the right tools and guidance. If you’re ready to make changes like this in your own school, let’s talk and put together an action plan. Visit for a free 15 minute call. And let’s see if we’re a good fit for more work together. Thanks again for listening. To support the education evolution. Subscribe so it lands in your podcast app and gets out to more decision makers. Then rate and review it. For more information in shownotes go to education evolution listeners. You are the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen heard, valued and thriving. We are in this together and we need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today. Thank you for listening, signing off. I am Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education.

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