meet the parent

A charter school parent gains prominence as loyal opposition

Mona Davids and her daughter, a sixth grade student at Equality Charter School in Co-op City.
Mona Davids and her daughter, a sixth grade student at Equality Charter School in Co-op City. (Photo courtesy of Mona Davids.)

A Bronx parent who went from charter school foe to cheerleader in under a year is now at the middle of a debate over how to organize charter school parents.

Mona Davids has rapidly gone from being an unknown public school parent in Co-op City to being known by key players in the debate over charter schools and among the highest ranks of the Department of Education. She pops up everywhere from charter school board meetings and charter renewal hearings to district Community Education Council gatherings. She was even featured in a television advertisement for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reelection campaign, in which she blasted rival William Thompson’s education record.

A year ago, Davids was on the other side of the battle. As co-president of the parent association of P.S. 160 in the Bronx, she broke the news that the DOE was considering putting a new charter school, Equality Charter School, in the same building. Davids, whose daughter attended the district school, initially helped lead parent protests against siting the charter school there.

But after learning more about Equality Charter, Davids suddenly reversed course, sent in her daughter’s application to the charter school and began helping the charter recruit other students.

As she began to organize parents for Equality Charter School, Davids said that she recognized a flaw in the way charter schools are set up in New York City. Davids was accustomed to working within the structures set up by the Department of Education to involve parents in traditional public schools, mechanisms like School Leadership Teams, Community Education Councils and District Family Advocates.

“In the charter school system, we don’t have any of that,” Davids said. She began searching for organizations to help support parent involvement in charter schools, finding options in Massachusetts, California and Idaho, but nothing in New York.

“I was really surprised that parents didn’t have a voice,” she said.

Davids founded the New York City Charter Parents Association in May and next week, she will launch the Charter Parent Training Academy.

The training program is designed to replicate her own organizing strategies among other charter school parents. She’s starting small, sitting down with six charter school parents from schools around the city three days a week for three months.  She intends to train them how to conduct parent meetings, incorporate their schools’ parent groups as non-profits, fund-raise and request member items for their schools from their legislators.

Charter school parents need to double as lobbyists, Davids said, and she wants to teach them the trade. She wants to train the parents how to advocate for changes to state education law that limit per-pupil funding for charter schools and ban charters from receiving public funding for their own school buildings.

For all her vocal support of charter schools, Davids said that she knows the system isn’t perfect, and she doesn’t intend to be quiet about her criticisms.

“I am a supporter of charter schools, but we have serious issues,” she said. “The grievance process doesn’t work. Something needs to be done, but right now the charter system doesn’t have district family advocates. Every system must have checks and balances.”

Davids, who is on leave from her job as head of the consulting firm Azania Holdings, said she funded her work at the Parent Association by herself until this week, when she received her first outside donation. She refused to identify the donor, saying only that the donation is from a philanthropist acting as a private individual. The donation will be used to provide a stipend for the six parents participating in the training academy, which will be held during daytime hours, Davids said.

With her tall frame and command of a microphone, many have looked at Davids and seen a natural politician. Davids makes advocates on both side of the charter debate a bit nervous. To charter school opponents, Davids may be the harbinger of a grassroots support movement in New York, the lack of which has occasionally been a sore spot in the charter school movement. To charter school advocates, she is not an unconditional friend.

“I’m not a paid flak, I’m a parent,” she said. “We are not puppets of the charter school movement; we are not puppets of the anti-charter school movement. This association was born out of a fight for equal access to a quality education for all students.”

Davids said that because of her interest in educational equity, one of the main goals of her group is to “bridge this huge divisive gap” between charter school parents and parents of traditional public school students.

Her ability to bridge that gap is still unproven. Several P.S. 160 parents I spoke to who fought against the siting of Equality Charter Schools said they still feel betrayed by her for switching sides in that debate. And Davids’ involvement in other charter school siting battles, notably at P.S. 15 and PAVE Academy in Red Hook, has garnered much attention, some of it extremely critical.

Davids said that she would like to find common ground with the charter school opponents who have dubbed her “Moaning Mona.” Her suggested starting place? Charter school facilities funding.

“If they don’t want charter schools in the building, will they please help us get construction funding for new schools?” she said.

First Person

First Person: Why my education nonprofit is bucking the coastal trend and setting up shop in Oklahoma

PHOTO: Creative Commons

“Oklahoma?! Why are you expanding to Oklahoma?!”

The response when I told some people that Generation Citizen, the nonprofit I run, was expanding to central Texas and Oklahoma, quickly became predictable. They could understand Texas, probably because our headquarters will be in the blue-dot-in-sea-of-red Austin. But Oklahoma?

My answer: Generation Citizen is expanding to Oklahoma City because no one would expect us to expand to Oklahoma City.

Our nonprofit is dedicated to empowering young people to become engaged citizens by reviving civics education in schools. We help middle and high school students learn about local politics by guiding them as they take action on issues they care about, like funding for teen jobs or state resources for teenage moms.

I founded the organization after graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2009. Since then, we’ve expanded our programming to Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. All are urban areas with wide swaths of low-income young people, unequal schools, and disparate power dynamics. Our work is needed in those areas.

At the same time, all of these areas have predominantly liberal populations. In fact, according to The Economist, they are among the 10 most liberal cities in the country.

Generation Citizen is a non-partisan organization. We do not wish to convince young people to support a particular candidate or party — we just want them to engage politically, period. But the fact that we are preparing low-income young people in liberal urban centers to become politically active complicates this narrative.

So despite the fact that we could work with many more students in our existing cities, we made a conscious decision to expand to a more politically diverse region. A city that had real Republicans.

As we started talking about expansion, I realized the extent to which the dialogue about political and geographic diversity was a rarity in national nonprofit circles. While several large education organizations, like Teach for America and City Year, have done an admirable job of in working in conservative and rural regions across the country, a lot of other organizations follow a more predictable path, sticking largely to cities on the east and west coasts and sometimes, if folks feel crazy, an Atlanta or Miami.

There is nothing wrong with these decisions (and we were originally following this trajectory). A big reason for the coastal-focused expansion strategy is the availability of financial resources. Nonprofits want to raise money locally to sustain themselves, and those cities are home to a lot of people and foundations who can fund nonprofits.

But a more problematic reason seems related to our increasing ideological self-segregation. Nonprofits lean toward expanding to places that are comfortable, places that their leaders visit, places where people tend to hold similar values and political views.

One of the fault lines in our democracy is our inability to talk to people who disagree with us (highlighted daily by this presidential election). And non-profits may be exacerbating this reality.

This schism actually became more apparent to me when our board of directors started having conversations about expansion. Oklahoma City had come to the top of my proposed list because of my personal and professional contacts there. But I quickly realized that no one on my board lived more than five miles from an ocean, and save a board member from Oklahoma, none had stepped foot in the state.

“Are we sure we want to expand there? Why not a gateway city?” (I still don’t know what a gateway city is.)

“We can hire a Republican to run the site, but they can’t be a Trump supporter.”

“Are we sure that we can raise enough money to operate there?”

It wasn’t just my board. Whenever I talked to friends about our plans, they’d offer the same resistance.

The stereotypes I heard were twofold: Oklahoma was full of bigoted conservatives, and it was an incredibly boring location. (The dullness narrative got an unquestionable boost this year when star basketball player Kevin Durant left the hometown Thunder. It became quite clear that a main rationale for his leaving the team was Oklahoma City itself.)

But as I met with folks about Generation Citizen’s work, I met citizen after citizen who was excited about our mission. The state is facing tremendous budget challenges, and its voter participation rates amongst the worst in the country. Given these realities, there seemed to be widespread recognition that a program like ours could actually be helpful.

I did not talk about national politics with most people I met. Indeed, we might disagree on whom to support. But we did agree on the importance of educating young people to be politically active, shared concerns about public school budget cuts, and bonded over excitement for the Thunder’s playoff chances.

Still, the actual expansion to Oklahoma will be a challenge for our organization. Despite our local ties, we are coming in from the outside, and we do have the perception of being a progressively minded organization. What will happen if one of our classes wants to advocate for open carry at schools in response to a shooting? How will my board handle working in a site where they wouldn’t ordinarily visit?

I am excited to tackle all of these challenges. And I would push other similarly sized non-profits to think about working in a more diverse set of areas. It is not possible to be a national organization and avoid entire swaths of the country. But more importantly, given these tenuous political times, it feels important to interact with people who may not hold our beliefs.

Nonprofits can’t fix our national dialogue alone. But by expanding where we work, we might help improve the conversation.

honor system

Meet Derek Voiles, the Morristown educator who is Tennessee’s newest Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Tennessee Department of Education
Derek Voiles, Tennessee's 2016-17 Teacher of the Year

Derek Voiles, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher in Morristown, is Tennessee’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year, the State Department of Education announced Thursday.

One of nine finalists for this year’s award, Voiles teaches at Lincoln Heights Middle in Hamblen County Schools in East Tennessee. He received the top teacher honor at a banquet in Nashville.

Voiles, who has been teaching for six years, has long shared his teaching practices publicly — on Twitter, through a blog he wrote with a colleague, and as a state ambassador for the Common Core standards. In recent years, according to a state news release, his classroom became a hub as teachers from across his district observed his teaching in hopes of replicating his practices, which often improved the performance of students far behind their peers.

“All students are capable of achieving great things, and all students deserve a teacher who believes this and will do whatever it takes to make it happen,” Voiles said in the release. He is also a doctoral candidate at East Tennessee State University.

Now, Voiles will gain an even wider stage, as Tennessee’s representative to the National Teacher of the Year program. He will also share insight from the classroom as part of committees and working groups with the Tennessee Department of Education.

All nine Teacher of the Year finalists, representing each of the state’s regions, will serve on the Commissioner Candice McQueen’s Teacher Advisory Council during the 2016-17 school year.

The department also recognized two division winners from Middle and West Tennessee. Cord Martin, a music education and enrichment teacher at Whitthorne Middle School in Maury County, was recognized for his innovative teaching strategies and connecting content to contemporary culture. Christy McManus, a fifth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Chester County Middle School in Henderson was honored for equipping her students with the end goal in mind: a college-ready twelfth grader.

Voiles follows Cathy Whitehead, a third-grade teacher from Chester County, who served as Tennessee’s 2015-16 Teacher of the Year. Whitehead teaches at West Chester Elementary School in Henderson in West Tennessee.