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Building a Community Organization to Improve Education

Dr. Sharon Wagner Rhonda Ulmer is being honored as a Champion of Change for her time and effort in AmeriCorps.

As a mother of three it has been a challenge for me to balance a life of children, work and school. It was difficult to incorporate them into my daily work and I wanted to find a way to set a great example for them. I got that chance in 2004, when I successfully made a rewarding career decision to join Volunteer Maryland (VM), an AmeriCorps program of the Governor’s Office.

Serving in AmeriCorps through VM provided me with the skills to not only help myself and family, but an entire school community. When a needs assessment was conducted of my children’s elementary school, the results were apparent why some children in our school were being left behind. The survey results revealed parents need of basic needs, educational resources and skills to help themselves to in turn help their children academically succeed. 

As founder of the Van Bokkelen Family Network, the program provides local community resources such as GED, health, and housing education for parent in the school. Through the dedication and commitment of the network parent volunteer leaders, teachers, and community partners; the school is no longer on the Maryland State Department of Education takeover list, and the school has successfully sustained itself for over three years. 

With the support of teachers and the community, Van Bokkelen Elementary families have healthier lifestyles, students have strengthened their math, science, history and other academic skills, and the school has become the hub of the community. PTA membership has grown significantly from 25 inactive members when I started to a larger network of active and engaged members who all help the school continue to make substantial yearly progress. The Van Bokkelen Family Network has led to a national PTA award for the group andthe model has been used to assist other troubled schools.

The huge success of my project inspired me to expand my vision of making every parent potential a reality across the State of Maryland. In 2008 after receiving the Eli J. Segal AmeriCorps Alums Entrepreneurship Award, I founded the University for Parents, a community organization that provides parents throughout Maryland with the skills and resources to help their family succeed. The organization helps mentor and educate parents with the skills they need to help their children be successful in school. I continue to share the Van Bokkelen story as a testimony that low performing schools can close the achievement gap through parental involvement. By educating, encouraging and motivating parents to succeed as a family, this becomes a win-win for the school and the community. It was not until my basic needs were met as a parent, was I able to help my children. I would be able to relate and lead by example for other parents through my own personal experience.  

In 2004, I was unsure if I made the right decision to join AmeriCorps, but deep down in my heart I knew I had the desire to give and talents to bring out the best in others. My AmeriCorps service helped my dream for years to start a community organization that provides educational resources for parents come true.

Rhonda Ulmer is the founding director of University for Parents (UfP), a community organization that provides parents with the tools and resources to help their children succeed in school.