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Giving Credibility to the Shadow Education System

RiShawn Biddle: Dropout Nation Part One

I have a close connection to RiShawn Biddle, who runs the fabulous Dropout Nation podcast over at his blog. I asked him the other day if he could talk about parent advocacy groups and what they could mean for grassroots efforts to reform urban education. I sent him some questions. He happily obliged them. He wrote back so much that we are going to split this up in three parts. Here are today’s answers. Enjoy

Douglas: Urban families have education needs that are sometimes not met by the current political processes or the education system’s set up. What would a natural, organic grassroots organization look like?

RiShawn Biddle: I’m not sure what urban grassroots organizations advocating for parent power – or parent power groups and parent unions – would look like. I think we will see several different kinds of models that meet the particular needs of a time and place. But all will have a few things in common.

For one, parent power groups will engage in a form of mobilization that doesn’t often happen in suburban districts. As we have seen in Compton, Calif., where Parent Revolution is helping parents at McKinley Elementary School become the first to use the Golden State’s Parent Trigger law, it’s not enough to just get petition signatures and present them to school boards. There will be a need to connect parents to reform-minded chambers of commerce, law firms and others outside of traditional public education to force districts and states to give parents power.

Parent power groups will also be actively involved in educating families about what high-quality education should look like and the options that are available to them. This would fill a need currently unmet in big cities, suburbs and rural areas alike. In Connecticut, for example, the parent union being formed by State of Black CT Alliance cofounder Gwen Samuel will offer a K3 parent power curriculum which focuses on teaching parents to know the needs of their child, know what is available in their schools and understand what resources are available in their communities for school reform.

Douglas: What does a grassroots or other organization that represents the education needs of urban families have to have as its first set of priorities?

RiShawn Biddle: The first step for parent power groups must start with educating families about education itself. One of the biggest obstacles for families in urban districts is the lack of knowledge about what their kids need to know in order to ultimately succeed in school and life. These parents want the best for their kids and want a voice in education. But they often don’t understand the mechanics of reading or know what kids should be able to do in school by the time they reach third grade. They also don’t understand what school options – from charters to magnets to vouchers and even school turnaround efforts through the use of Parent Trigger laws – are available to them, and don’t know what a high-quality option should look like.

The school information gap is one that also affects middle class suburban families, including those who have just entered the middle class for the first time. But at least the latter have the resources available to access the information that is out there. Poor urban families, however, often have nowhere to turn. Teachers and principals often treat them as afterthoughts or nuisances. Other grassroots organizations tend to focus on other areas of community life outside of education. And the parents themselves may either be illiterate or poorly-educated; many of these parents attended the same dropout factories and failure mills in which their kids now sit.

So parent power groups will have to spend a lot of time on teaching families about the basics in a respectful way. They will have to address concerns about schools that may not seem to relate to the actual work of education, but do have meaning for families. As Dianne Piche of the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights pointed out earlier this month, some poor urban families have other concerns, including whether a school is close enough to their home so that their older kids can pick up younger siblings. Middle class families sometimes have similar concerns.

Parent power groups will also conduct listening and information campaigns with churches and community groups that work with these families. While these organizations can be important partners in school reform, parent power groups will have to break down their general mistrust of new grassroots organizations and the outside groups they may bring in to help. After all, they always think they have “seen them all before” and have seen them fail to fulfill their promises. Since church leaders may also have ties to the leaders of local districts and have to consider the teachers sitting in the pews of their churches, it may take some convincing to get them on board any reform agenda.

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