May 28 — 11:00 pm, 2003

At two West Region schools, new openings for parent power

From her porch across the street, Cynthia Wall has seen a lot of changes come and go at Cassidy Elementary School near Cobbs Creek Park.

Like many parents in the District’s West Region who have children in takeover schools, Wall has had a year with some hard transitions, mixed with exciting opportunities to play a more significant role in her school.

Wall has been involved with the School District for nearly 40 years, since her first child started school. She has been involved as a grandparent, teacher’s aide, and, for the past four years, Home and School President at Cassidy.

After decades of involvement in schools, it was a familiar feeling for Wall when the state took over of the School District last year and Cassidy was one of the schools on "the list" targeted for reform. She recalls, "It was like, ‘Here we go again. They’re experimenting on my babies, and I don’t like it.’"

"We fought it with every tooth and nail we had," she adds.

Restructuring Cassidy

Despite protests, Cassidy remained on the list of schools targeted for management change. The school opened its doors this fall as one of 21 "restructured schools." The District’s internal reform model, restructured schools receive extra funds and support from the District’s newly created Office of Restructured Schools (ORS).

After almost a full school year under the reform, Wall says that the changes at Cassidy have not been easy, but they have been positive for the children, and for her. She has seen a marked increase in the amount of supplies and materials at the school, more support for teachers, and more learning going on, she believes.

Through opportunities offered by the ORS, Wall has been learning this year, too.

The ORS has created a parent advisory board that meets monthly and is open to all parents with children at restructured schools. Through these meetings, and others for West Region Home and School Presidents, Wall has developed a greater understanding of issues like standardized testing and the curriculum at restructured schools, and she is able to pass that information on to other parents.

"Now, I feel more comfortable answering parents’ questions, without referring them to someone else," she comments. "There was a time when the [Home and School] President didn’t have a clue what was going on, when all we could talk about was fundraising and bake sales. [Now], we’re in on the curriculum at the school. We know what’s being taught, what’s being read. We’re also asked our opinion."

Wall says that this year she has been able to have conversations with teachers in the hallway about testing and curriculum, and that has earned her newfound respect from school staff. "They’ve always respected me," she said. "[But now] they respect my opinion."

Monitoring change at Locke

At Locke Elementary School in West Philadelphia, managed by Edison Schools Inc., parents have also had a year of painful transition mixed with hope for their school.

After having children enrolled for six years, Home and School President Denise Jackson decided to get more involved at Locke this year because of the new management.

"The school was getting a lump sum of money that we had never had before," she explains. "I wanted to make sure that the funds were getting spent in the right direction and not into someone’s pocket."

Jackson and other parents became more involved than they ever expected when faced this fall with an Edison-appointed principal they describe as uncommunicative and insensitive to parents’ needs. According to Denise Jackson and another parent, Shelly Jackson, the principal told them that they were not allowed in the school building and prohibited them from handing out information to other parents or displaying information in the hallways.

After several difficult months under the principal, Shelly Jackson said she was relieved they got in touch with Edison representatives to voice their concerns. Soon after discussing the situation, Edison replaced the principal with an interim leader and involved the parents in selecting a new principal for next year.

The parents say the interim principal has transformed the school since starting in late-April. They have been provided a parent room and been involved in school improvement planning and reviewing the school budget.

For Denise Jackson, the past year has taught her about the power that parents can have in schools. "We’re the ones that make this school. We either can make you or we can break you," she says.

Within the confines of a reform that was decided for parents, rather than by them, Jackson, like Cynthia Wall, has used the changes to carve out a new role in her school.

Jackson says that she has been pleasantly surprised to discover that she may have underestimated her community’s ability to come together to make change happen at the school.

"We really have a lot of people that will protest and say, ‘This is not going to happen any more, and we can shut [the school] down,’" Jackson says. "And, so you can see, we’re having fun now."

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