A Life Dedicated to Improving Public Education Through Family Engagement | Hall of Fame 2019 Inductee: Adie Simmons

“I chose to apply to nonprofit organizations right after graduation, as I felt my work could positively impact others and be a catalyst for societal change. I am a believer in giving back and being part of the community, and this made me happy,” says Adie Simmons (B.A., 1988), as she reflects on her time at the UW Department of Communication. Her internships senior year gave her “a good perspective of different organizational cultures, and where I could [best] fit. Fast forward to today, and I now lead my own nonprofit organization.”

Simmons was always passionate about becoming a communicator. However, she encountered many challenges as a South American woman born in Peru, with English as her second language. Recently, while perusing her high school yearbook, she found records of her aspirations to become a journalist. “Investigative journalism was my dream, but when I graduated from high school in pre-Shining Path Peru, under a military junta dictatorship, journalists were being persecuted, jailed, and sometimes killed,” she shares. “My parents were ready to leave the country, and I ended in up Costa Rica and then in the US, where for many years, I did not feel confident speaking and writing in English.”

Simmons’ time at the UW was foundational in her development as a communicator and writer. “It was at the UW Department of Communication where my English skills, and overall confidence, grew. I also learned how to edit (I love to edit!) mine and other people’s writing—a skill that has served me well through the years and across many jobs, and more so now writing for the web,” she says.

Simmons found her calling in working with schools and families—a passion that has translated into over three decades of public service. “After graduation and a few years working at a nonprofit organization, the opportunity to work at a school district in a family advocacy position came my way, and I took it,” she recalls. “I had not planned on this move, but I found that I liked working with schools and families.” Simmons also pursued a master’s degree in education, because she was interested in a career as a school district (program) administrator.

In 2006, after running several successful programs to improve family engagement in public schools and communities, Simmons was appointed by Governor Christine Gregoire to develop and direct the Washington State Office of the Education Ombuds (OEO). She single-handedly developed this new agency, dedicated to resolving conflict between families and schools, and promoting family engagement in education.

During her nine-year tenure as Director of the State Education Ombuds, Simmons encountered “hundreds of situations where parents needed someone to tell them how to fully support their student’s education, and the importance of stepping in as their children were struggling in school.” Most of these were students of color. “My staff and I did a lot of parent education work, and had many parents and educators telling us later that the students’ school performance, behavior, and attendance had improved,” she shares with pride. Simmons also worked with state legislators to introduce and pass state laws to remove barriers, and improve access to educational opportunities for diverse students, and increase the participation of parents in schools.

Boosting engagement from both parents and teachers was crucial to Simmons’ success as the ombudsman. “When I worked with schools across the state, I realized that engagement means forming school-home collaborative relationships, and that this is something that not all parents and educators understand and know how to do,” she points out. “However, when school-home interactions go terribly wrong, it can have a profound impact on students. So, there is urgency for everyone to do this better. I am a firm believer in educating both sides—parents and educators.”

Empathy is also central to Simmons’ work philosophy. She believes that “communicators and educators have working-with-people-of-all-ages in common. They need to become skilled in understanding human nature; develop a high degree of empathy—learn to put themselves in other people’s shoes in order to understand and tell their stories. Everyone experiences life, work, and schools differently, so there are millions of stories to tell. They deserve to be told with kindness and truth.”

Simmons is a pioneer and champion for parental involvement at schools. Her education at the UW taught her that “you have to know your audience, and you have to tailor your message to that audience. [However,] I noticed early on in my public education career that a great number of K-12 educators and administrators did not consider parents their audience. They focused strictly on students as if kids did not have parents. Research has shown that when schools and parents work together as equal partners, students do better.”

Simmons was determined to change that status quo. “Parents considered themselves advocates for their children—as parents always have and always will. But they were not counted as part of the team. They were left out. I can hear the voice of one of my Communication professors saying, ‘this is called a dissonance!’ I have spent nearly 30 years working to level the playing field for parents, but I think this tension between educators and parents will always exist, as they both advocate and care for children they share,” she explains.

After years of public service, Simmons decided to reinvent herself, while still serving those she cared about the most. In 2014, she founded her own nonprofit, called the Washington State Family and Community Engagement Trust, to build the kind of parent-school relationships about which she’s always dreamed. In addition to empathy, diversity and equity are key principles of the organization. “We attract the diversity we want to have in our programs because the majority of our Board of Directors, staff, and volunteers are people of color,” says Simmons. “The families we serve notice that and feel comfortable participating in programs led by people that look like them. Also, we all have experienced discrimination and bigotry in the course of our lives, and we have those experiences in common.”

While Simmons is doing her part, she also thinks it’s important for parents to understand their role. “First, parents need to understand what engagement in education is all about. And second, they need to know they have the right to respectfully partner with schools as they and their children are the public in public education,” explains Simmons. Additionally, she believes that “teacher and administrator college preparation programs need to do their part by offering school-family engagement courses and making them a graduation requirement.”

The Washington State Family and Community Engagement Trust runs several programs that further Simmons’ vision. “We brought the Parent Leadership Training Institute from Connecticut to our state with the goal of teaching parents how to work with schools, become civically engaged, and advocate for their children. We now have over 100 parent graduates, and we have added a Children’s Leadership Training Institute, which has been highly successful,” Simmons notes. “Our parent graduates tell us that taking this course should be a requirement for every parent who has children in the public education system—it’s transformative. Parents learn to find their voice and feel empowered to engage in schools, [their] neighborhood, and the workplace.”

Given her benevolent and entrepreneurial spirit, it is no surprise that a good day’s work for Simmons is when “I have done something, big or small, to help others—whether a member of my family, or the kids and families I serve. Equally, a great day is when I have solved a problem or conquered an obstacle that impedes achieving my goal of developing a highly functional, nonprofit organization.”

Despite the inevitable challenges, Simmons has always fiercely pursued her passion for public service and education. When asked how she does it, she simply says, “I am pretty persistent and never give up. Obstacles are made to be taken down, and it better be by me. I think problem-solving is in my DNA. It’s just who I am.”