parent power

Parents with Families for Excellent Schools start to get political

Parents talk about the answer to a question posed by the group facilitator: "What are the characteristics of a quality education?"
Parents involved with Families for Excellent Schools sit in a small group discussion to talk about the answer to a question posed by the group facilitator: “What are the characteristics of a quality education?”

Regina Dowdell stepped up to the microphone and made an honest admission to the room full of fellow parents.

“I personally didn’t know exactly what the mayor did,” said Dowdell, whose daughter attends Girls Preparatory Bronx Charter School. “I think that’s an important focus today.”

Then a PowerPoint slide with the words “Why the mayor matters” flashed onto the screen, followed by slides explaining that the mayor chooses the chancellor and the majority of members on the Panel for Educational Policy, the city’s school board.

The education policy tutorial was part of Families for Excellent Schools‘ first town hall meeting, aimed at turning parents affiliated with the 18-month-old group into a political force in this year’s mayoral election. The nonprofit organization, which focuses on parent-to-parent training and has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from local and national foundations, is one of several trying to mobilize parents as a voting bloc this year.

The group’s top priorities are school choice, teacher evaluations, and ensuring that charter schools have access to public space. But rather than to tell the parents what to think, said Executive Director Jeremiah Kittredge, the purpose of Saturday’s event was to start a conversation for the 200 parents in attendance to begin understanding the policies they can push for.

“This is about developing a statement of principles that these families can use, on which they would hold a mayor who’s here for 10 or 12 years accountable,” Kittredge said. “It’s my hope, if we’re doing our job right, that folks here feel like they’re helping to found and grow an organization that’s not going away.”

More than 5,000 parents from more than 50 schools — almost all charter schools — have attended at least one event or training session during the school year, according to the group.

“Parents can be a political force if they really come together as advocates,” Kittredge said. “But that requires some real learning about what those policies are and how they work.”

On Saturday, the parents divided into 12 groups, with one parent facilitating each table’s discussion based on prompts such as, “What are the things you look for when choosing a great school for your child?” and “How do you know that a school is preparing students for success in college and beyond?” Then the groups brainstormed answers and voted on which issues should be considered top priorities.

Some of the responses fell neatly in line with FES’s agenda. Dowdell, for example, said she was especially worried about how the next mayor will deal with charter schools.

“Bloomberg has always been a huge supporter of charter schools,” she said. “It’s kind of scary that he’s not going to be here anymore.”

But the two ideas that parents brought up most often — the need for safer schools and more parental involvement — spanned education’s ideological divide.

“Parents need to be educated about the system, not just involved,” said Marcia James, who is the PTA president at her child’s KIPP Academy charter school. She added that she thought rivalries between public and charter schools are misguided. “Do not think of it as charter versus traditional public schools. Think of it as what will help our children.”

Carl Powlett, whose son attends Excellence Boys Charter in Brooklyn, said he came to the event because he wants to get more men involved with parent organizations.

“It’s the kind of traditional role that men in our community think women should take on and they’re simply not willing to take the time,” he said. “Mothers are raising these kids by themselves even when there’s a father in the home and we need to fix that.”

FES will hold another town hall meeting for Brooklyn parents April 30 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The Harlem and Brooklyn town halls will prepare parents for FES’s mayoral candidate forum in mid-June.

FES does not plan to endorse candidates, and Kittredge said 60 percent of parents in the group have not yet decided whom to vote for. He also said the organization is less concerned about election day and more focused on the years to come.

“We want to work with whoever the next mayor is to be focused on issues that our families care about,” Kittredge said. “This is less about picking a victor and more about making sure families’ voices are heard.”

Families for Excellent Schools created posters describing each mayoral candidate's personal biography, including where they were born, what schools they went to and whether they have children.
Families for Excellent Schools created posters describing each mayoral candidate’s personal biography, including where they were born, what schools they went to, and whether they have children. Anthony Weiner was included as a potential candidate. “If he does end up throwing his hat into the ring, people should know what he’s all about,” one FES staff member said.
Before Saturday's event began, parents were invited to write their own answers to questions like, "What is the biggest challenge facing your children?" and "What is your biggest dream for your children?"
Before Saturday’s event began, parents were invited to write their own answers to questions like, “What is the biggest challenge facing your children?” and “What is your biggest dream for your children?”
After Spanish-speaking parents spent an hour brainstorming a long list of issues most important to them, they each voted on which ones they would focus on first.
After parents spent an hour brainstorming a long list of issues most important to them, they each voted on which ones they would focus on first. Two of the discussion tables were solely dedicated to Spanish-speaking parents and all of the FES presentations at the event were translated to Spanish for these parents.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede