May 26 — 11:00 pm, 2004

Parents still struggling for a seat at the table

Parent activists reflect on a decade of efforts to deepen roles, build power in schools

"Profound parent involvement means sharing leadership – and that means sharing knowledge, responsibility, and most difficult of all, power. This is anything but simple."

In this statement, longtime education activist Rochelle Nichols Solomon describes the core of an ongoing struggle to create more meaningful roles for parents in schools.

A new wave of parent activism in schools emerged during the early 1990s in Philadelphia. For this tenth anniversary edition, the Notebook interviewed a group of parents and community activists with a history of involvement in Philadelphia schools to talk about developments in parent activism over the last decade.

These parent leaders said that the relationship of active parents to schools has evolved from being solely about "fundraisers and cookie sales" to being about "the real issues" that impact their children’s lives.

"[District officials] came to a realization that they couldn’t do it without us," said Philadelphia Home and School Council Vice President Wendell Harris. "They had to allow us to have more input in our children’s lives."

There was far less coordinated citywide parent organizing ten years ago, noted Eva Gold, a researcher with the local group Research for Action. "Parent involvement was much narrower and school-driven," she added.

Parent activists told the Notebook about experiences in the past decade – participating in academic standards writing teams, working with school officials to address school safety concerns, and sitting on school-based hiring committees – where parents moved into more meaningful roles in shaping what goes on inside schools and classrooms.

But with continued resistance from schools to such roles and with the recent demise of independent, community-based parent groups like Alliance Organizing Project and Parents Union for Public Schools, parents expressed concern about the current state of parent power in the District.

Court ruling prompts action

Several of the parents interviewed by the Notebook said the historic 1994 court ruling on racial equity in schools delivered by Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith helped to kick parent activism into high gear during the mid-1990s (see Racial Equity).

Judge Smith maintained the quality of education would not improve at the 134 "racially isolated" schools without involving parents. She ordered the District to establish school councils districtwide where parents would play more meaningful roles in decision-making at their children’s schools.

Judge Smith’s ruling led to a series of town meetings held across the city to solicit input on a reform plan. Many parents were moved to speak out, said Philadelphia Home and School Council President Patricia Raymond.

"I know parents who traveled to far ends of the city to make it to one of those meetings, so that they could be heard," Raymond said.

Judge Smith also ordered the District to release school test score data in 1993, stimulating greater public awareness of the city’s public education crisis, said Steve Honeyman, executive director of Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project (EPOP).

"All of a sudden, for the first time, the Inquirer is publishing a list of how the schools do on tests. That wasn’t happening in the ’80s or the ’70s for that matter," said Honeyman.

‘Children Achieving’ sent a message

Parent activists also pointed to the tenure of former Superintendent David Hornbeck – which lasted from 1994 to 2000 – as a period when the District began to express a desire to afford parents more decision-making power in their children’s schools. Parent involvement was one of ten points in Hornbeck’s sweeping Children Achieving reform plan aimed at increasing student achievement across the District.

Public school advocate Ros Purnell of the Philadelphia Education Fund said sending a message from the highest level of District administration "raised the level of consciousness in the community."

The 1995 founding of the Alliance Organizing Project (AOP) – an independent, citywide group of parents working to increase authentic parent power at the school and districtwide levels – was encouraged by Hornbeck’s reform plan.

Organizing parents independently and providing them with specific training on the running of schools would build a strong support base for schools, the plan maintained.

Former AOP organizer Lucy Ruiz said the birth of the group connected her with other parents across the city that wanted more of a say in their children’s education.

"Parent organizing really helped some of the schools in our area," said Ruiz, who has organized parents at several schools in the Central East region. "When I found AOP, I gathered more voices, and realized, ‘Wow, I have power.’"

But a "commitment to parents as full partners" in school reform was never fully realized under Children Achieving, according to a 2001 report by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education and Research for Action.

"There just wasn’t the kind of professional development around new roles for parents that was really necessary to move these roles forward in a dramatic way," said Gold, the report’s lead author.

Efforts to deepen parent involvement in schools were also undermined by weak support from District officials and resistance to increased parent roles within many schools on the part of teachers and administrators, the report stated.

Battle against school takeover

Parent activism surged again in the controversy around the state takeover of the School District in December 2001. The takeover put the District in uncharted territory by turning over 45 low-performing schools to outside educational management organizations (EMOs)- including the for-profit company Edison Schools Inc.

Many parents resisted the plan, saying they were angry that state and District officials and school managers didn’t ask for parent input before they launched a risky experiment on Philadelphia’s schools and school children.

With grassroots parent groups including ACORN, AOP, and Home and School playing a leading role in the citywide protests that erupted, the takeover plan motivated groups who had not traditionally allied before to "form coalitions with other groups," said Harris.

Even though the controversial for-profit company Edison Schools Inc. gained control of 20 District schools, "At least they didn’t get the 70 schools they wanted," said Ruiz.

Former AOP parent organizer Cecelia James agreed that the organizing efforts of parents, students, and community members shaped the outcome of the takeover.

"The bottom line is: had we not been organizing, then we would not have accomplished anything," she said.

Still struggling to have a voice

Parent leaders said they were still dissatisfied with the lack of authentic avenues for involvement in schools and the system as a whole.

"I don’t feel that there is an invitation to parents to be at the table," said Purnell. "Decisions [about our children] are being made without our presence even being requested."

Looking forward, Carol Hemingway, president of Pennsylvania ACORN, said there is more organizing to be done to deepen parent roles in schools.

"We’ve got to come up with creative ways about how to reach out to parents to get them involved," said Hemingway, noting that outreach to parents has to evolve with the times.

Ruiz said she would like to see District officials embrace parents as valuable resources in the struggle to improve education.

"They have a resource around the whole city, but they don’t want to use it," she said. "They see us as a threat."

That only strengthens Ruiz’s conviction of the importance of continuing the tradition of Philadelphia parent organizing.

"We need parent organizers that have been through this stuff so they can go inside the schools and say, ‘Look, I’ve been through this. I’ve done it, and you could do it, too.’"

the notebook

Our news is free to read, but not to report.

support local journalism