When it comes to reforming education, one local nonprofit that supports charter schools wants parents and families to have a seat at the table.
The Mind Trust announced Wednesday that it is establishing a two-year fellowship to develop a parent advocacy organization — and seeking candidates to be a part of it.
The goal of the fellowship is to empower families — particularly low-income families and families of color — to advocate for changes in their publicly funded schools, said The Mind Trust executive director Brandon Brown.
“This is our attempt at really flipping the script, from a relatively top-down approach to education reform to a movement led by families that we hope will be sustainable over time,” Brown said.
A common criticism of education reform efforts, both in Indianapolis and across the nation, is that changes are forced onto communities, and that families affected have little or no input about those changes. But it remains to be seen whether The Mind Trust’s push for greater parent involvement can transcend hotly politicized divides in education. Locally, Stand for Children Indiana’s parent advocacy efforts have faced criticism from those who feel the group is trying to advance a political agenda supporting reform efforts.
Brown said the new parent advocacy group would be independent of The Mind Trust.
“That might mean that eventually they may choose to advocate for something that is not the direction we want to go,” he said.
Still, the group would likely focus on families at Indianapolis charter schools. Brown said he expects the fellow, who will receive coaching from The Mind Trust, to support charter concepts such as giving strong leaders more freedom to run their schools. The fellowship comes with an estimated salary of $75,000 to $90,000 per year.
But Seretha Edwards, a parent at School 43, said families need unbiased training and support — and she’s not sure The Mind Trust is the ideal vehicle for that.
“I’m sure if The Mind Trust is doing it, it’s going to be a biased vetting process,” said Edwards, who is involved in the IPS Community Coalition, a group critical of charter reforms.
It would be up to the fellow to decide what the new parent advocacy organization would look like, and what issues it would undertake, said Shannon Williams, The Mind Trust’s senior vice president of community engagement. She plans to work with community and faith organizations to find the right candidate. Ideally, that person, Williams said, would be a local parent who can connect with other parents and build a grassroots organization. Williams pointed to Memphis Lift and PAVE, or Parents Amplifying Voices in Education, in Washington, D.C., as potential models for parent engagement work.
In Indianapolis, Stand for Children provides a “University for Parents” to train families on how the educational system works and how to ask policymakers for changes. The organization works with parents at new innovation schools and supports parents in endorsing school board candidates. In the past, the group has arranged for parents to go door-to-door to gather support for the district’s referendums.
“I think the biggest thing that we have seen with families that we work with is that they just want a great school for their child,” said Stand Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller.
Cesar Roman, director of community engagement for the pro-school choice Institute for Quality Education, said more parent advocacy is badly needed in Indianapolis.
“What we often leave out is parents themselves and families themselves,” said Roman, who is also a member of Chalkbeat’s Reader Advisory Board. “The No. 1 place where we’ve gone wrong is not engaging people where they’re at.”
This is particularly an issue in low-income communities, experts say, in places like Indianapolis, where upward mobility has proved more challenging than in other American cities.
Wealthier people often have more social capital and more power to put pressure on schools, said Howard Fuller, founder of the now-shuttered Black Alliance for Educational Options, former Milwaukee schools superintendent, and a school-choice advocate.
But in low-income communities, schools “really feel less pressure, because they’re dealing with people who are traditionally powerless,” he said.
Fuller said it’s important for a parent advocacy organization to go beyond engagement, and give parents the power to push for changes.
“The question is, what kinds of parent organizations can be created that are there as a constant — not just for a particular issue or a particular problem,” he said.
The Mind Trust is accepting fellowship applications through March and expects to select a fellow in June.