Q&A

Policy wonk-turned-producer explains new parent activism film

Producers of a new documentary about parent activism say they aim to inspire parents across the country to press for change.

The film, “Parent Power,” traces the organizing story that emanated from an effort to improve a single Bronx school in the mid-1990s and resulted in the citywide Coalition for Educational Justice. Set to premiere on Thursday, “Parent Power” was produced by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, which has long supported parent activism efforts, in collaboration with FPS Video Productions. (The premiere, at NYU’s Cantor Film Center, is open to the public.)

Filmmakers Norm Fruchter, an Annenberg Institute policy analyst, and Jose Gonzalez, a parent activist from the South Bronx, gathered 15 years of footage and photography of parent organizing efforts. They also interviewed teachers union president Randi Weingarten, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, parent activist Zakiyah Ansari, and others involved in supporting the parents’ efforts.

I spoke with Fruchter, who told me about the making of the movie, the origins of its story, and his hope that parent activists across the country tune in.

JC: Where does this story begin?

NF: [In 1996,] parents at the New Settlement Apartments in the South Bronx were concerned about their local elementary school. They got in touch with us to see if they could do a workshop with us about what their rights were and how they could go about getting involved.

The film chronicles the growth of the [New Settlement] Parent Action Committee and the work that they did to try to improve a particular school and how the community discovered that in order to improve that school they had to go through the school district and its superintendent and also the Department of Education and the schools chancellor. They realized they didn’t have enough power as a neighborhood group to move either the school district’s superintendent or the chancellor.

New Settlement convened a group of organizations in the South Bronx. Most of them decided that the public education in the South Bronx needed to be drastically improved and they were prepared to organize to bring that about. They formed what they called the Community Collaborative to Improve District 9 Schools (CC9), that would work first to improve education in District 9 in the South Bronx and then in all of the South Bronx schools.

How did you organize the film to show the parent organization efforts that grew from there?

We tell three stories: the story of the Parent Action Committee trying to impact a local school; the story of CC9 trying to improve education in District 9 and developing the Lead Teacher Project; and we tell the story of the Coalition for Educational Justice trying to improve middle schools across the system. Within the CEJ section we also tell the story of Highbridge getting a middle school.

So the goal was to tell these three big stories and one little story to show how these campaigns developed out of the local groups. It tells the story of the organizations and, in each case, makes the argument that school reform depends on the action and mobilization of community groups.

How did you gather the fifteen years of footage?

When we started trying to compile footage and photos for the film we went to all of the organizations that were part of it – CC9, the Parent Action Committee, the other programs that are part of CEJ and we appealed to individual parents who were part of the organizations. A lot of the demonstrations and actions were covered by local TV stations so we asked people for any photos of any meetings or retreats or demonstrations and that’s what we put the film together with.

We started shooting our own video for coverage’s sake in 2007, so we had footage from the years 2007 through 2010, when the film ends.

How did the different chancellors react to the parent organizing efforts?

The period of the film spans three chancellors: Harold Levy, Rudy Crew and Joel Klein. Crew was somewhat receptive to parent organizing. Levy met with some of the groups but basically was not responsive to what they wanted.

And when the Bloomberg administration — under mayoral control — reorganized the school system it became much harder to do parent organizing because the structure was constantly changing. The Bloomberg/Klein administration did not respond particularly well to criticism and really thought that the parents’ role should be confined to helping your child do well in school, which is clearly a necessary role. But parent participation beyond that was not welcome.

The film argues that parents made a fair amount of headway under the Bloomberg administration, but it was through enormous efforts of organizing and opposition.

Who is your target audience?

There are 300 to 500 groups across the country who are doing this work. We made the film primarily to distribute to them, at the inspirational level, to show them that this work does yield demonstrable results. And on the second level, to suggest some ways to go about it.

What do you want viewers to get out of watching “Parent Power”?

In a period when market-based school reform is dominated by foundations and top-down efforts, what we tried to make is a film that shows the importance of community-based, bottom-up efforts at school reform.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”