Howto:Organize parents for better education
||NYC howto: Melting pot or salad bowl, "cook up" your neighborhood with this tasty civic recipe|
Parents are the best advocates for their children, and parents’ voices should be an integral part of decision-making at the school level as well as at the district and citywide levels. However, lone voices are often lost and parents can be much better advocates when they band together.
Here are steps you want to take when you come across an issue. Your issue might be particular to your school (my kid needs a longer lunch period) or broader in scope (we need more schools in our neighborhood).
Talk to the leadership
The first stop should be your PA (Parent Association)/PTA (Parent Teacher Association) leadership (or the School Leadership Team if your concern is curriculum related). Don’t approach them with just complaints. Do remember they are volunteers. Do offer your assistance in developing a solution. Talking to the PA/PTA leadership will also help you with the next step: research.
Research the issue
In order to develop a viable solution, you need to know your issue from all perspectives. Why does the problem exist? Is it a problem only for some parents and students? Is it a problem common to all schools or unique to your school? The research may not be easy because most school issues are very complex and involve multiple factors and players. Go online to read up on your issue (see below for some resources). Sign up for a listserve and post your question. Talk to as many people as you can at your school, including teachers and administrators. If you cannot talk to teachers and administrators, ask the PA/PTA leadership and the Parent Coordinator to help you with your research. Keep an open mind. It is likely you will come across people who have opposing views. You need to know the “other side” of the story.
Reach out to others
The goal of this step is twofold: reaching out to others will help you in your research, and you will have a short list of people to work with for the next step following the outreach. Depending on what the PA/PTA or the School Leadership Team (SLT) is doing to address your issue, you may need to build your voice. Start with reaching out to other parents in your child’s class and others you know in the school. Do they share your concern? Is it a widespread problem that needs to be addressed? Would they be interested in working with you to solve the problem?
Assume a neutral tone when you contact people initially and respect those who do not share your concern. Coming on too strong may alienate some parents. Remember you are researching your issue as well as identifying allies.
If your issue is broader in scope, attend a meeting of the District PA/PTA Presidents Council or the Community Education Council to meet parents from other schools. The Presidents Council meetings are more informal and you can engage in conversations with parents from other schools. The CEC meetings are formal public meetings where you are only allowed to speak publicly for a limited amount of time. However, you can meet members of the CEC at these meetings. You may also want to attend a meeting of the youth & education committee of your Community Board.
Start a core group
Regardless of the scope of your particular issue, assemble a small group of parents who are as passionate about your issue as you are and with whom you feel comfortable working. Set clear but achievable goals. Maybe you want to start a petition. Or your goal may be a rally. Be realistic about what you can change in short term. Most school- related problems take a long time to solve. Also recognize that the solution may require a phased approach with small incremental changes.
Once you have a core group and an “action plan,” you can reach out to other parents to build constituents around your issue. By this step, you probably know a lot about the issue and have a good grasp of the complexity. It is important to keep in mind that other parents do not have your knowledge. Choose a message that is simple, to the point and relate to the other parents easily.
Use multiple means of communication. If you only use e-mail, you’ll only get a subset of parents. Use e-mail, web site, backpack mail (if possible), phone tree, fliers at drop off, PA/PTA meetings, whatever else is available to communicate with as many parents as possible.
- Do take the time to learn all the perspectives and the complexities surrounding your issue.
- Don’t complain – offer solutions. Creative solutions are particularly good!
- Do find a small group of like-minded parents. You don’t want to go at it alone – you’ll need all the support and bright ideas you can get.
- Always be positive and offer solutions. Negativity and complaints will not get you far.
- Do reach out to others. With more than 1,500 schools and over a million students in the system, you are guaranteed to find others who share your concerns!
Education advocacy requires patience – lots of it. Don’t expect things to change overnight but do remember change can only happen if dedicated parents keep at it. It does take a village to raise a child, and that village is your child’s school. It is hard work, but our kids deserve it.