May/June 1998

Transforming Public Schools

By Barbara  A. Taveras



Parent and community groups push for meaningful school reform in low-income neighborhoods

On June 11, 1997, the New York Times heralded the news that the nation's fourth graders scored above the international average in math and science, according to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. Politicians and educators cited this as evidence that more than a decade of attention to improving America's schools is paying off. Whether or not this is the case, it is unlikely that "the nation's fourth graders" referred to in the article included the kids attending public school in community schools district 12 and 9 in the South Bronx, in New York City – the nation's largest school system. They, too, made news on June 11, along with thousands of students in several of the city's low-income minority neighborhoods. They were reported to have scored at the bottom in reading, just as they did last year, and almost every year before.

Such contrasting news about student achievement is neither new nor surprising. In a January 1997 report, Quality Counts, a special report on the condition of public education in the 50 states, the editors of Education Week note that "public education systems in the United States are riddled with excellence but rife with mediocrity." Kids trapped in this cycle of educational mediocrity are most likely to be poor and minority students.

To those who care about children and the future of this country, the disparities in education underscore the need to push with renewed vigor for school reform that reaches each child in every classroom. Hopeful signs of this kind of school change are everywhere. Across the country, a growing number of parents, community, and youth activists are undertaking hundreds of organizing efforts to address the core issue of education reform – how to create effective public schools that can serve all children well.

Many of the groups engaged in such school reform efforts are rooted in low-income and minority communities, where schools and districts are most often isolated from the community and resistant to change. While these efforts often focus on improving education at the school and district levels – where it matters most – many are moving beyond individual school-level issues to seek change at the policy and systemic levels. These groups play a critical role in framing issues, developing proactive agendas for school change, and, most importantly, systematically building the kind of informed, strong local constituencies of parents, students, and community leaders necessary for successful school reform.

During a rally in October 1996, Curtis Michell, the pastor of Antioch Progressive Baptist Church, which belongs to Sacramento Area Congregations Together (ACT), underlined reasons why hundreds of grandparents, young mothers and fathers, high school students, community and congregation leaders – blacks, Hispanics, whites, Asians – had come together to fight for better schools: "We will not accept low test scores. We will not accept dropouts. We will not accept not having enough books to take home to do homework. We will not accept five and six substitute teachers in a classroom in a six month period. We will not accept not having permanent principals to lead the schools. Our cup runneth over with no accountability. Our cup runneth over with mediocrity."

School Reform from the Bottom Up

While parents and community groups engage in a broad spectrum of programs and approaches that address educational inequities and push for reform, these initiatives can be grouped into three general categories:

In practice, each of these areas overlaps and reinforces the others. Advocating for children in school can lead to collaborations that change teaching and learning practices, just as a new policy on funding or restructuring can shift the system and create opportunities for students, parents, and school staff to achieve quality education.

Advocating For and Supporting the Child in School

Advocacy can mean both protecting children from discriminatory practices and securing the educational services and protection afforded by law. This is often accomplished through parental involvement, which has positive and well-documented effects: teachers have higher expectations of students, schools gain greater understanding and sensitivity to children's individual needs and home cultures, and the system develops a greater sense of accountability to the community.

In Chicago, the Uptown Community Learning Center, in partnership with Centro Sin Fronteras, works with parent leaders in different schools to gain the support and involvement of parents in implementing the Chicago Systemic Initiative, a system-wide effort to reform math and science instruction.

Another good example is Powerful Schools in Seattle, which trains parents of low-income children and places them in targeted schools as teachers aides, tutors, reading specialists, and program coordinators. A coalition of elementary schools and community groups, Powerful Schools and the King County Organizing Project have been working together since 1995 to organize parents and school staff to restructure and improve public schools in Seattle's low-income and minority neighborhoods.

"The idea started casually enough, with neighbors chatting over burgers and beers at potlucks and summer block parties," The Seattle Times reported in March 1996. "From the simple notion of reconnecting schools with their neighborhoods came Powerful Schools, a coalition of Ranier Valley elementary schools and community groups that...has a track record of improving attendance, volunteerism at the schools, and some test scores."

Some groups combine advocacy training with a focus on the role of families and communities in helping students succeed. Southern Echo's work with the Algebra Project in the Mississippi Delta rallied parent and community involvement to win the school system's support for the project's Math Games Leagues, an afterschool program serving some 200 students, grades four through 10, at the Indianola Middle School. Students, parents, math teachers, and school administrators all participate in the league, which began in July 1996. The project provided an engaging way "to bring parents and the community into the educational process," said Leroy Johnson, Southern Echo co-director.

This work has resulted in the development of parent, student, and community groups in more than 10 Delta school districts with a majority of black students. Under the umbrella of the Mississippi Education Working Group (MEWG), these groups are learning to frame issues, develop workable solutions in their districts, and affect state-level education policy. For example, in February 1997, as the state threatened a takeover of schools in Tunica, Mississippi, MEWG brought together over 350 people to a public hearing to reverse the decision. The group has also developed a working relationship with the Mississippi Education Association in the past year. And, according to Johnson, legislators reported that the group's efforts significantly heightened awareness of the need for substantial new education funding.

Building Collaboration

A number of community groups are involving parents and educators in new models of school accountability. The Washington Rural Organizing Project, in Washington state, has created a path-breaking partnership with the Spokane Education Association to support shared decision-making with teachers and parents and to forge a united front to defend public education.

Parents and community groups are also initiating and supporting new public schools that break the factory mold and foster collaboration. Citizens Planning and Housing Association in Baltimore (CPHA) works with parents, teachers, and community leaders to create small, community-based public schools. The stadium school, Baltimore's first public school organized and managed by teachers and parents, opened in fall 1994. The school set a precedent for the transfer of meaningful [community participation] to the school site. In 1996, CPHA successfully advocated for a process in Baltimore public schools that encourages the creation of these types of schools, and four new such schools opened in September 1997. Recognizing that starting new schools is not possible in every community, CPHA has broadened its efforts to include building stronger connections between schools and surrounding neighborhoods.

Changing the System

The biggest challenge of school reform is to effect change at the systems level. This involves a range of organizing and advocacy approaches to power, from confrontation to collaboration. Some groups use traditional community organizing techniques like door-to-door visits and house and community meetings to mobilize parents and community residents around specific school improvement issues.

One such effort, Mothers On The Move (MOM) in New York, a grassroots group of concerned parents, has trained parent leaders in a low-income, South Bronx community to organize other parents to hold the district superintendent accountable for the poor quality of education that schools in community school district 8 provide to poor and minority children. In December 1996, over 100 parents met with New York City School Chancellor Rudy Crew to demand that he take over the schools in the southern part of the district plagued by low reading scores. "There is no equality in expectations of our children," MOM member Edith Colon told Crew during the meeting. MOM's efforts led to an investigation of conditions in District 8 schools and resulted in the departure of the district superintendent, who had served unopposed for over 20 years.

The Role of National and Regional Organizing Networks

Bringing about school-level change that results in significant improvement in student learning often requires outside force and setting in motion concerned constituencies to initiate and sustain pressure for system-wide reform. Social action organizations affiliated with national and regional community organizing networks, such as the Pacific Institute of Community Organizations (PICO), the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation (TX/IAF), are playing an increasingly important role in this work. With years of successful organizing around housing, credit, and other community development issues, these organizations have a strong base of congregations, families, and community groups from which to work to improve public schools.

Although ACORN, IAF, and PICO differ in their strategies for change, they share a commitment to building the long-term capacity of parents and communities to improve and control decisions affecting their children's education. These organizations often use a community organizing approach to rally parents to fight for school improvement. This approach seeks to develop the collective power of neighborhood residents to play a substantive role in shaping the priorities and practices of their public institutions and improving the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

Community organizing is a labor intensive process, however, offering neither pre-packaged solutions to problems in a particular school or school system, nor easy ways to reach low-income parents and sustain their involvement. Most groups involved in school reform efforts operate without adequate resources to find appropriate and helpful information, share important findings and successes with others doing similar work, or expand their capacity to integrate research and policy functions within their program and thus accelerate the pace of change. The ACORN, IAF, and PICO organizing networks assist parents, congregations, and community leaders with leadership training, information gathering, ongoing consultation and technical assistance, and regular convenings of residents. This support helps community members learn how their school systems work and enhances their ability to formulate viable strategies to achieve desired change.

Does it make a difference? ask the parents of low-income Hmong and Hispanic students at the Pacific and C.B. Wire Elementary Schools in south Sacramento, where Sacramento Area Congregations Together (ACT), a six-year-old federation of 23 congregations and parent organizations, has emerged as an effective advocate on behalf of children in low-income neighborhoods. ACT, a PICO affiliate, seeks to open the district's administration and school board decisions to greater public participation; ensure that students start the school year with permanent principals, teachers, and adequate books and supplies; and pressure the school district to make literacy a top priority and create a reading improvement plan with measurable objectives. ACT has been developing Parent Action Groups, composed of parent leaders who work with teachers and school administrators, to engage the larger parent population in efforts to improve schools and student achievement. ACT has developed parent groups in low performing schools in south Sacramento, one of the county's poorest areas. ACT is also involved in PICO's Learn and Earn Campaign, a statewide effort to increase the number of high school juniors and seniors in paid internships with local businesses.

Teachers, administrators, and parents of students at Roosevelt High School in Dallas work with Dallas Area Interfaith (DAI), a Texas IAF affiliate. Roosevelt, with about 1,000 mostly African American and Hispanic students, was slated to close four years ago, due to high incidence of violence and low student performance. Since becoming a DAI Alliance school, parent involvement, attendance, and student achievement have risen dramatically. Founded in 1992, DAI has a membership of 60 congregations and is implementing the Alliance School Project in 20 low performing schools in the Dallas Independent School District. In these schools, core teams have been organized, attendance and student achievement have risen, the number of parents participating as real partners in the schools has increased, and new relationships are developing with institutions in the community surrounding the schools. In addition, CPHA in Baltimore has begun replicating this successful model in five Southeast Baltimore schools.

New York ACORN has helped parents frustrated with overcrowded conditions improve local schools, developing new schools, and seek systemwide school reform. "ACORN Schools" in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan are developing practical models for cooperative governance by parents and school staff. The ACORN Schools campaign also emphasizes hands-on, cooperative learning and an atmosphere in which both teachers and students are engaged in what they are doing. The campaign seeks not just to create one or two, or even a dozen new schools that work. Rather, its goal is to bring about systemic change in the New York City Public Schools by building a movement of parents who can effectively organize and advocate for better schools.

From Local to Statewide Action

Along with their school-level reform efforts, the PICO, ACORN, and the Texas IAF networks are becoming significant players in state and national school reform policy initiatives.

PICO's California Project, initiated in 1993, is a statewide effort focused on providing all of California's high school students with access to an effective, fully funded, school-to-career program. The California Project brings together 13 California-based PICO affiliates to secure legislation and financial support to implement quality school-to-career programs in the California public schools. In 1997, the California Project succeeded in redirecting $5 million of Job Training Partnership Act funds to support school-to-career internships for low-income high school students.

ACORN took its local school reform experience to the national legislative level in 1994, with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. ACORN focused on the legislation's parent involvement component and charter school provisions, and advocated for greater equity in the allocating formula and increased accountability to parents at schools receiving Chapter One funds. National ACORN also began to promote replication of New York ACORN's small schools model. In Boston, Albuquerque, St. Paul, and New Jersey, ACORN organizations have developed Charter School proposals. In Chicago and Washington, DC, ACORN members are developing "schools-within-schools" in several public schools, as well as Charter School proposals.

The Texas IAF's Alliance Schools Initiative has resulted in the creation of effective parent-community-school collaborations in more than 60 public schools in 18 school districts in Texas. The project is being replicated in other southwestern states. Begun in 1992, The Alliance Schools Initiative is a partnership between the Texas Interfaith Education Fund (TIEF), the Texas IAF network, teachers, principals, parents and school district officials, Regional Education Service Centers, and the Texas Education Agency (TEA). The project aims to create communities of learners, bring parents into the life of their children's schools, reshape the culture of those schools, implement school-based strategies to increase attendance and student achievement, and organize a broad constituency in support of public education reform.

The school organizing efforts of social action networks and local groups demonstrate a variety of proven methods to engage parents and other concerned community people in the search for and implementation of effective strategies. Parents, community leaders, educators, and staff involved in these efforts invariably speak about the transformative nature of the process in which they are engaged – a transformation evident in them and in the school communities to which they belong. "Parents have been excited and energized, teachers are beginning to envision true partnerships with parents, and administrators are feeling supported," Seattle's Powerful Schools reported in October 1996.

Parent, community, and youth activists are, at the very least, the pilot light that keeps the potential for such school change alive. At their best, they are critical agents for building the school-community linkages necessary to transform schools. With the proper tools, knowledge, and support, these linkages can get at the root of problems and result in long-lasting change in the delivery and quality of public education for all children, whether in an affluent community or in school districts 12 and 9 in the South Bronx.

Copyright 1998


Barbara Taveras is executive director of the Edward W. Hazen Foundation. 212-889-3034.



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