Side by Side breakfast in Laurel celebrates growth, achievement

Community members and education advocates filled Bethany Community Church on Saturday morning for the Laurel-based nonprofit Side by Side's fifth annual fundraiser breakfast and silent auction.

Side by Side, launched in 2009 by former Laurel Leader editor Joe Murchison, works to support families and educators in the Prince George's County School System.


The nonprofit's flagship program, Great Start, is a series of teacher-led workshops that help preschool through second-grade parents engage their children academically. Side by Side also offers an after-school homework club at Laurel Elementary School, and the organization collaborated with Laurel parents to create an education guide for Hispanic families in Prince George's County.

During the breakfast, Murchison discussed Side by Side's growth and achievements, including recent grants it won from United Way and the Osprey Foundation.

Murchison said the number of parents and children participating in the Great Start workshops has increased from 419 to 1,000 over the past year. Side by Side currently runs eight Great Start workshops for kindergarten and preschool parents, and it has added new workshops for first and second-grade parents and Hispanic families.

In the coming years, Murchison hopes to expand the Great Start program so that it can provide services for all local elementary school parents and reach other areas in Prince George's County.

"We're on the right track, but we can't stop here," he said.

Murchison invited several teachers and parents to speak during the breakfast about how they have benefited from their involvement with Side by Side.

Selena Fizer, a Great Start workshop leader who teaches kindergarten at Deerfield Run Elementary School, said her students who participate in Side by Side programs have made the biggest improvements in math and reading since the beginning of the school year.

"It's a very valuable organization," Fizer said. "When you see what an impact it makes, it's all worth it."

Side by Side is also an important tool for parents, Fizer said, because it gives them a transparent look at what their children are learning and the progress they are making.

"They're always asking me for more advice, which is a wonderful conversation to have with a parent," she said.

Liza Llaneta and Sunil Muhammad began attending Great Start workshops when their daughter, who attends Deerfield Run, started showing signs of separation anxiety during the school day. Through the workshops, the couple developed a system where they would give her stickers as an incentive for going to school, and her behavior changed in less than one week.

"She comes home every day with such a great attitude," Muhammad said.

Llaneta said she hopes Side by Side will expand so that other parents in similar situations can receive support and guidance.

"Even after the workshops stopped, we're still able to utilize what we learned," she said.


Ultimately, Murchison said, Side by Side has been a fun and exciting way to engage with his community and rally around education.

"I was very fortunate to be able to find other people who are like-minded and wanted to do what we could to support local schools," he said.