As city makes plans for parent academy, union opens its own

Three years after city officials first considered forming an “academy” to teach parents about the school system, the teachers union has found a group of parents who are tired of waiting.

Plans for a parent training center have been in the works since 2009, when state legislators told the city to create one. But requisite funding never materialized and the project lay fallow until last fall, when Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced plans to open a parent academy for the 2012-2013 school year.

The city’s parent academy would give parents study tools, and inform them about the high school and college process, Walcott said at the time. The city is now seeking proposals from community organizations that could be involved in creating the training program, which is scheduled to begin this fall.

The workshop series, planned by the teachers union and longtime parent organizer Mona Davids under the name “Parent Leadership Academy,” will touch on those issues. But with workshop titles such as “Parent as Leader,” and “Parent as Lobbyist,” the academy’s main purpose is to motivate parents to advocate on behalf of their children and schools, and demand education policy changes.

About fifty parents—ten from each borough—packed a third-floor conference room at union headquarters for the new academy’s inaugural meeting on Saturday morning. The parents were invited to participate by borough liaisons to the union, according to Anthony Harmon, a union official who conducts parent outreach. Several veteran city activists, including Juan Pagan and Laurie Frey mingled with self-described lobbying naifs, who took turns practices short introductory speeches in the style of a public testimony.

Davids herself has championed the causes of both charter and district school advocates first as a parents association president for the Bronx’s P.S. 160 in 2008, and now as the leader of the New York City Parents Union.

The morning’s activities were designed to prompt parents to think about and articulate positive qualities of their schools, as well as issues to complain about, from teacher turnover to confusing test policies.

Some of the parents said they signed up for the five week long workshop series because they wanted to fell more included in school- and district-level policy discussions that currently feel out of reach. Others said they also wanted knowledge of how to empower their children to do the same.

“Parents in our school never get involved, they just come and go,” said Iris Perez, whose child attends P.S. 14 on Staten Island. “So my solution would be getting parents more educated. I want to help parents get more involved in our school.”

Perez, a PTA president, fought nervous giggles as she addressed the group of parents and presenters, who encouraged her to organize other parents at P.S. 14, the first Staten Island school ever to be slated for phase-out, which begins this year.

Addressing the group before the workshop began, teachers union president Michael Mulgrew said the five-week course would be the beginning of a more active partnership between the United Federation of Teachers and the Parents Union.

“Our dream is that next year we can expand this program,” Mulgrew said. “it is my belief that there will be a lot of changes in education over the next 20 months, for the better.”