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Duval Program Aims To Create Parent And Caregiver Leaders Who Solve Real Problems

Lindsey Kilbride
Beauclerc Elementary students in 2017.

Jacksonville stay-at-home mom of three, Whitney Touchton will soon spend almost the next half-year of her life in an intensive leadership program aimed at school parents and caregivers.

Her children range from high school to kindergarten, all in public school and one with special needs. She said over the past five years she’s been passionate about diversity issues and concerned about bias.

She’s done some volunteer work in the area, but wants to step up her impact and is hoping a new program in Jacksonville called “Parents Who Lead” will help. “To learn a little bit more about how I might be able to use my voice to advocate for others,” Touchton said.

That includes advocating for children with special needs, like her daughter.

Touchton is one of 21 Duval County parents accepted into the program which teaches them how to become leaders and walks them through addressing real issues.

The parents will each be working on a project to fix a problem in the community. They each come to the program with different concerns ranging from bullying, to the district’s budget, to school safety.  

Program facilitator Maira Martelo with the Jacksonville Public Education Fund (JPEF) said they’ll learn all they need to know about actually creating change, including the basics like how city government works, how to read a budget and what avenues there are to make changes.

“The whole idea is really how do we strengthen and create the ability for parents to really go from having a concern about a topic to creating a solution,” Martelo said.

She said the group is racially and socioeconomically diverse and also includes a variety of religious backgrounds.

The program is the result of a national model created in Connecticut called Parent Leadership Training Institute and it’s been replicated in more than 20 states, she said.

One example that stuck out to her was a mother in New York who noticed her son came home from school sick frequently.

“So she started talking to the nurses and teachers and what she found out is many of these families they didn’t have a thermometer,” Martelo said.

She was able to get a drugstore to donate thermometers for the whole school.

Some of the program’s alumni from across the nation have gone on to run for local offices including school board and city council.

The program is being run by JPEF, the Duval County Public Schools and the Jacksonville Public Library.

Martelo said bringing the program to Jacksonville was a two-year process and getting certified to facilitate the program was only second in rigor to her PhD in education.

Duval’s first cohort has its initial meeting Saturday. Martelo said the plan is to facilitate a cohort annually. In addition, the alumni’s further endeavors will be tracked.

Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.

Lindsey Kilbride was WJCT's special projects producer until Aug. 28, 2020. She reported, hosted and produced podcasts like Odd Ball, for which she was honored with a statewide award from the Associated Press, as well as What It's Like. She also produced VOIDCAST, hosted by Void magazine's Matt Shaw, and the ADAPT podcast, hosted by WJCT's Brendan Rivers.