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.

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.