Sunday, February 08, 2009

Parent Activists (Is That Like a Community Organizer?)

Thanks to Dorothy for the link to a Washington Post article (and follow-up letter) on parent activities and their growing clout (at least for the parents in this article). I thought it deserved its own thread.

From the article:
"For a new generation of well-wired activists in the Washington region, it's not enough to speak at Parent-Teacher Association or late-night school board meetings. They are going head-to-head with superintendents through e-mail blitzes, social networking Web sites, online petitions, partnerships with business and student groups, and research that mines a mountain of electronic data on school performance."

This reporter, Michael Chandler, then refers to these parents as "parent insurgents". Hey!

Victories?

"In recent weeks, parent-led campaigns helped bring down a long-established grading policy in Fairfax County and scale back the unpopular practice of charging fees for courses in Montgomery County. They have also stoked debates over math education in Frederick and Prince William counties.

In Loudoun County, parents are gearing up to topple a grading scale similar to the one overturned in Fairfax. Another Fairfax group is making headway in a drive to push back high school start times."

(Ah, course fees. Yet another topic for another time but it's on my radar as well.)

And why is this happening?

"What binds them is impatience with the school establishment and an aptitude for harnessing the power of the Internet to push for change.

"We are not our moms, who were just involved in the PTA," said Catherine Lorenze, a McLean mother who helped organize Fairgrade, the parent-led campaign to change the Fairfax grading scale by lowering the bar for an A from 94 to 90 percent.

"We worked for a number of years before we had kids," she said. "We know how to research and find information and connect the dots. To expect us to show up and just make photos or write checks does not sit well with this generation. If you are going to invite parents in the door . . . it should be more of a partnership." (italics mine)

(That reminds of a recent article in the National PTA magazine entitled, "Is Your School Using Your PTA Like an ATM?" I have felt and heard this from a number of parents who either feel pushed out of decision-making by principals or feel that teachers expect the parents to be funding many things (without much apparent gratitude). I learned recently that a very good elementary school doesn't have any parents on their BLT because teachers don't want them there. This flies in the face of what a BLT should be especially if teachers at that school now want parents' help with principal problems. I'm always surprised at how much can be expected of parents and yet parent concerns or opinions about what happens at school then get brushed aside.)

Back to the article. I find this true of parents I have met recently during closures. I'm talking about parents with elementary school children who do have an impatience with the process. When my children started school, Internet use was in its beginning stages. I think today's ability to find information (and demand it be available on websites) on the Internet is huge for parents. And, as any present-day grandparent will tell you, parents are a lot more involved with their children and their education than they were as parents.

From the article:

"Former Fairfax superintendent Daniel A. Domenech said outspoken, savvy parents can be crucial allies in the fight for school funding. "The other side of the coin, of course, is you have to produce, because they are going to hold your feet to the fire," he said."

I would say that's as it should be. We are willing to help with time and resources and advocacy but don't ask for that kind of investment without something in return.

"Schools need to be more concerned about the digital divide than ever before, Hunter said. "We don't want to create two levels of power, those with access to information and those without it," she said."

What is interesting to me about that statement is the Cooper said they had little time to organize and didn't have the parent power that Arbor Heights did but yet their website was very good. Having said that, I would say there is a digital divide and as a PTA officer, I worry a lot about parents who don't have e-mail or who don't speak (or read) English well.

Change may be coming. From the article:

"A strategic communications team in Fairfax monitors the blogosphere and online message boards for misinformation or rumors, seeking to update the school system Web site and drive traffic there. The school system also is trying out new ways to include parents in important or controversial decisions from the earliest stages."

I have been told that several district staffers read this blog, both for personal reference but yes, to monitor the pulse of parents. (I do know that both the Board and staff are well-aware that this blog and any large influx of parent communications does not always accurately reflect parents as a whole. While they listen and welcome parent communication, they are keenly aware that many parents may be silent and are silent for difference reasons.) I do think our district is trying to keep parents in the loop sooner if only to not be on the defensive if something gets out here before the district announces it.

The Post article said that many of these parents were advocating only for their own children which raised the ire of the parent who wrote the letter, Sue Katz Miller. Here is what the parent letter has to say on this issue:

"Frankly, parents should and must advocate for their own children in the baroque bureaucracy of Montgomery County Public Schools. But those of us who join e-mail groups, sit through meetings, testify at hearings, uncover and post documents, and crunch data are almost universally motivated by a passion to help all families and all children.

In particular, we are trying to help families who do not have the courage, stamina or skills to figure out the system for themselves."

I like to think that last sentence is what this blog tries to do. My personal hope is that information we put out does get widely disseminated so that parents who don't have those attributes mentioned above can learn more about the district.

14 comments:

a mom said...

Amen. In these economic times, the schools and school district should be trying to create partnerships with their family communities to make schools better for all children. Given all of the passion and skill that we saw during this last closure crisis, there is definitely a wealth of talent out there.

dan dempsey said...

It was said:

"And, as any present-day grandparent will tell you, parents are a lot more involved with their children and their education than they were as parents."

True enough for the involved parents today ... but ...

the uninvolved are just as uninvolved as ever.

dan dempsey said...

Try this link to that same hot bed of activism the greater DC area.

Prince William County Virginia..
http://pwceducationreform.wordpress.com/2009/02/07/then-vs-now/

So is TERC investigations all it is cracked up to be????
Apparently NOT.

EDM and TERC/Investigations the SPS Elementary math finalists from Spring 2007 are both:

1) defective

2) Out of Sync with State Math Standards

3) Out of Sync with National Math Advisory Panel (EDM does not emphasize mastery and fails in reducing grade level topics)

4) Not internationally competitive

5) Leaves kids with little chance to actually master topics at appropriate ages or grade levels.

A decade of disaster just rolls along for SPS elementary math.

dan dempsey said...

This reporter, Michael Chandler, then refers to these parents as "parent insurgents".

Charlie Mas should be in the insurgents "Hall of Fame" if the dust ever settles.

Charlie Mas said...

I like the word insurgent. I'll own that.

Insurgencies are native; they are the locals. They are the army within.

This is our turf - the District leadership are only passing through. We're in this for thirteen years or more. They are rarely here for so long - particularly at the top. The higher you rise in the District the shorter your tenure.

SPSMom said...

"The higher you rise in the District the shorter your tenure"

And nobody seems to think they need to honor promises made by outgoing leadership.

BullDogger said...

The ongoing concern about parents advocating for their children while others do not doesn't keep me from respecting that advocacy right. SPS makes it hard for those that do have some sense of how things work. For the less experienced the system must be fairly overwhelming.

I like to think that, most the time, when parents advocate for their own it does start setting a "minimum standard" for SPS as an organization that all can benefit from. I live by a rule of thumb that for every hour I spend advocating for my child I spend ten hours advocating for others in some way. Many of you on this blog exceed my modest goal and have certainly earned my respect.

Recently my child went through SPS "counselor purgatory" that required way too much time. I have a lot of giving back to do. Charlie... I hope your willing to share the insurgent title around because I'm signing up.

seattleparent said...

OK- Here's a challenge to all of you Seattle "parent insurgents" and parent activists:

The Seattle teacher's SEA contract is coming up this spring & summer. The SEA union looks after the teachers and the District looks after the District (and...?), but no one is there to look after what is in the best interest of the students.

There is a well-funded (non-profit) nationwide research & advocacy group which helps communities do this, NCTQ.org.

This is our chance, Seattle parents, to advocate for what's best for ALL of our students!

From their website: The NCTQ "wants to help communities put students' needs front and center in teacher contract negotiations.
Partnering with community leaders, NCTQ can provide an objective analysis of the school district’s current teachers’ contract and make practical recommendations for improvements that put students’ needs first".

NCTQ needs to be invited by a Seattle-based educational organization to come to Seattle. It's ideal (but not required) that the District is also willing to work with the NCTQ. They will talk with the community, look at Seattle's contract and also contracts from similar school districts, and help make recommendations to improve the contract from the lens of what's best for the student.

Sounds interesting? How can we get this happening? This is a chance that will directly impact the next 5 years of all of Seattle student's education. Please consider this!

dan dempsey said...

SPS Mom said:

And nobody seems to think they need to honor promises made by outgoing leadership.


Read the Strategic Plan and the School Board Policies ... these folks do not even honor their own promises and obligations.

Check the Strategic Plan Update ... all the unfulfilled promises are strategically not mentioned .. as a result the update is a pretty small document.
-----------------
Seattle Parent is right on ...
why are we always serving the adults instead of centering on improving academics for children?

Melissa Westbrook said...

Would the Alliance for Education count for the NCTQ?

Charlie Mas said...

The District likes to play this little game of Catch-22.

If you advocate for your child - or a program that your child is in - they will sneer about how hard you work for your child, but that they need to be concerned about 45,000 children.

If you advocate for another child or a program that your child is not in, they will try to tell you to keep your nose out of other people's business and let those families speak for themselves.

It's a Catch-22. They will either sneer that you're selfish and self-interested, or they will accuse you of being paternalistic and a buttinski.

Don't accept it.

First, tell them that you're onto their game and that you won't play.

Then you can either remind them that your child - and others in that program - are among the 45,000 that they are supposed to be concerned about or you can remind them that every child in the district is a concern for you.

Usually just calling them on the ploy is enough to make them quit it.

sp said...

Charlie's blog entry (above) rings true with my experience also. The district must take special training on how to marginalize parent's concerns!

I remember last year when I was the only parent to show up for a strategic plan meeting (in the middle of the day, for parents). At first I thought I had walked into the wrong (ie staff) meeting. They encouraged me to stay. I finally was able to speak up, about equity issues- the lack of AP classes, honors classes & loss of the AP grant for several of our high schools.

I also talked about the barriers of entry requirements into the AP classes (really varies in each school). As soon as I gave the personal example of my son, instantly, one of the senior district facilitators said, Oh, you must have come here to speak up for your child? No, I said...but they still pulled me on the side with a very slick & very practiced technique to talk about "my issue".

I felt really marginalized. I came to speak up for ALL of our students and that was not recognized as a "real" (valid) concern.

The Delphi technique also is frequently used with groups of concerned parents (google it!).

BlabberMouth said...

As one of the "insurgent parents" from PWC, I have to say that it's nice to be in such wonderful company.

It seems, at least in PWC, like the schools want parents to do the dirty work - raise funds, clean the school yards, copy until our fingers are blue, etc, but when it comes to answering questions we have about the quality of instruction, we're too stupid and uneducated to matter.

It's kind of annoying, to tell the truth.

Rick said...

"I learned recently that a very good elementary school doesn't have any parents on their BLT because teachers don't want them there. This flies in the face of what a BLT should be especially if teachers at that school now want parents' help with principal problems."

This is not true, as the parents have now learned. The principal was trying to get the parents to believe that the teachers did not want parents on the BLT to be divisive.