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.

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”