Shareki Chaney at the Greater Homewood Community Corporation headquarters.

Shareki Chaney spent five years in the foster care system, being taken advantage of by one family who had her serving as a nanny to their biological children, and almost derailing her quest to become the first person in her family to graduate from high school and move onto college.  Chaney is now a coordinator for a program, run in partnership with Baltimore’s Greater Homewood Community Corporation (GHCC), that seeks to get parents actively involved in their children’s education, becoming partners in the classroom and ensuring that the kids continue to have the support and motivation to accomplish their educational aims.

The program for which Chaney serves as a coordinator is known as LIFTT, which stands for Learning Ignited by Family and Teachers Together.  It is a pilot program of ACTS (Alliance for Community, Teachers, and Schools), an organization under the fiscal umbrella of the GHCC, which is a local non-profit focused on sustainable community development efforts that also serves as a sponsor site for the AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) program, which provides funding for volunteers who then work in short term service projects identified by GHCC.

“GHCC’s mission is to build and strengthen vibrant urban communities,” explained Tyson Garith, the AmeriCorps VISTA supervisor for the 45 year old organization.

In pursuing that mission, GHCC looks to identify programs that could be established and overseen by VISTA volunteers for a period of one to three years, the idea being that the program will be able to then stand on its own once VISTA volunteers are no longer overseeing it.

AmeriCorps VISTA is a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that provides funding for volunteers like Chaney to serve in anti-poverty initiatives.  In Baltimore, GHCC coordinates programs with a number of non-profits and governmental agencies which provide service opportunities for VISTA volunteers, according to Lee Domeika, one of GHCC’s AmeriCorps Vista leaders.

For Chaney, now in her second year of volunteering through VISTA, LIFTT was an opportunity to directly influence some of the limitations her East Baltimore upbringing had on her own educational path. Chaney’s mother was not present for most of her life, which left her in the care of her grandmother.

“My grandmother never came to the school,” said Chaney about her grandmother’s involvement in her education. “I would always want my grandmother to come to the school but because she was older it was harder for her.”

Chaney explains that while she always enjoyed school, there came a point during her high school years when she lost focus. Nobody was pushing her to see her education through to the end, and it did not help that at 14, Chaney ended up in a foster home where she was taken advantage of by a family who encouraged her to stay out of school in order to take care of their biological children.

Through LIFTT, Chaney now works to ensure that parents are more engrossed in the educational lives of their children by getting involved in actual classroom instruction.  The single mother of an eight year old son who attends Kipp Academy, Chaney felt her input was valued by her son’s teachers, and has worked to bring a similar ethos to the four LIFTT sites, all in Baltimore City public schools, she is currently overseeing.

“When we go into these schools, I try to tell the parents the same thing: your voice is important, very important, more important than you actually know,” said Chaney.

There are many advantages to having community parents directly involved in their children’s instruction says Chaney. Students are better behaved when someone they encounter on a regular basis in their neighborhood is in the classroom, and teachers get more direct input about how the students are faring.

LIFTT parents are involved in lesson planning as well as classroom instruction, able to have input into various stages of the educational process.  The greater engagement facilitated by LIFTT has helped a number of parents become more active in their child’s school community overall, with a parent at one site coming to administer the school’s food pantry, another becoming vice president of the PTO, and another serving as a football coach.

“All of that from LIFTT and because the administrators, the principals, everyone valued those parents . . . just because they have such a positive impact,” said Chaney.

Roberto Alejandro

Special to the AFRO