They come to learn English, for tips on how to be a better parent. They want to know more about fitness training, financial literacy, and computer basics.

Since its start this year, more than 2,000 parents have taken free courses with the Philadelphia School District's new Parent University. Officials hope to reach 10,000 parents by the end of this school year.

It's part of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's push to involve the 169,000-student district's parents, a bullet point in "Imagine 2014," her five-year blueprint for city schools funded with $500,000 of district money.

Ultimately, more involved parents mean better student outcomes - no small feat in a district where half the children can't read or do math at grade level - and so the investment is worth it, Ackerman said.

Philadelphia is one of several cities around the country to try parent academies. Charlotte, N.C.; Boston; Rochester, N.Y.; Nashville; and others are all using classes as a way to reach parents.

"There's no more powerful message to a child than to see his or her parent learning, studying, engaged in furthering their education," Ackerman said. "If you build a great program and embrace parents, they will come."

So far, they have come to continuing-education classes like Tame and Train Your Tongue: Family Communication, Raising Readers Workshop, and A Touch of Class: Social Etiquette. Officials have sought to reach some parents who might not normally participate in their children's education by recruiting in homeless shelters and public housing developments.

Parent University, open to any district parent, offers courses in various languages and in community centers and schools as well as at the district's Center City headquarters.

A small group of Parent University students is scheduled to start an associate degree program at Cheyney University in the spring. Eventually, officials hope to make Parent University courses credit bearing.

Ackerman said that Parent University is the district's first attempt at a school for parents, although from 2005 through 2008, the district's grant-funded Parent Leadership Academy offered courses to 1,000.

Parent University student Anna Figueroa just earned her high school diploma during the summer, and is now back in the classroom for Stacy Ellerbe's twice-weekly English basics class. Figueroa has four children, one of whom is still in high school, and two grandchildren in the district.

"I love it, I love it," Figueroa, 43, said of Parent University. "It's motivating me."

Figueroa is a noontime aide to the Home and School president at FitzSimons High, an all-boys school in North Philadelphia. Her reason for heading back to the classroom after 25 years - ultimately, she'd like to graduate from college and become a social worker - is simple, she said.

"I do it for the 475 boys in my building," Figueroa said. "They motivate me, and help me with my homework. I show them, if I can do it, you can do it, too."

Erlene Bass Nelson, a retired district educator, teaches a Parent University class called Character Development: Beyond the Three R's. Her students are thirsty for knowledge, she said.

"Parenting is a very difficult job," said Nelson, who taught kindergarten for more than 50 years. "They deal with not having enough financial resources, being single parents without a support system, being in negative, abusive relationships, having children who are rebellious, and not knowing how to handle all of this."

The courses, Nelson said, equip parents with tools to tackle some of their problems, social or academic.

In Ellerbe's English Basics class, the 14 parents who sat around a U-shaped conference table on a recent morning tackled subject-verb agreement, picked apart sentences, and reviewed strategies for writing a composition. They were young and old, mothers, grandmothers, and one father.

Ellerbe asked the class to write examples of a sentence with a plural subject.

"My kids want a Nintendo," someone volunteered.

"Is it want, or wants?" Ellerbe asked.

"Want, without the s," Figueroa said.

Many of Ellerbe's students say they took the class to be better equipped to help with homework. Some never finished high school, and others have some college under their belt.

It's been 30 years since Sylvia Simms sat in a classroom, but she's now plowing through Parent University classes with the goal of attending college to get a degree in special education.

"I did it so my daughter could go back. She dropped out of college," Simms said.

Her granddaughter, a third grader in the district, "thinks it's cool" that Simms is back in school. That grandmom has homework is a real novelty, she said.

When it was time to share compositions, Millicent Badie read her vividly descriptive paragraph about the elements of a good meal in a clear, strong voice. Badie, who has four children, three of whom are still in school, said she makes sure her children take advantage of every summer program and opportunity available to them.

Her youngest speaks three languages, Badie said, and every day when the boy comes home from school, she makes him teach her what he learned that day.

"That's why I came to Parent University," Badie said. "I want to learn everything I can. You can't run from something that is difficult; you have to be empowered."

Karren Dunkley, the district's deputy of the Office of Parent, Family and Community Services, said there had been considerable demand for more Parent University classes at more sites and in more languages. There's currently a waiting list for classes in English as a second language, she said.

"We chose the classes that would best help parents help their kids," Dunkley said. "What parents want is more, but we have to make sure that it's sustainable, that it's quality education."

The hope is to make the program as much like a real university as possible, Dunkley said - district staff examine curriculum and audit courses, which run on a semester schedule. Each instructor is evaluated.

For urban parents often called out for what they don't do for their children, Parent University is a way to begin to turn things around, said Karen James of the Office of Parent, Family and Community Services.

"They want to know how to be involved, but some don't know where to begin," James said. "There's a real thirst for knowledge, a thirst for learning."

More Information

A new semester of the Phialdelphia School District's Parent University will begin in January. To learn more, call 215-400-4180 or go to www.philasd.org/ parentuniversity EndText

Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com.