In this time of tremendous change, parents have a unique and critical role in improving our public schools – indeed, real and lasting change won’t happen without them. We all know that individual parents are the most powerful advocates for their own children. Organized parents working together become a powerful force for improving schools for their entire community.
I’ve seen this many times over the past 20 years I’ve been doing community organizing in high-need communities, most recently with Innovate Public Schools where I’ve had the pleasure of working with parent leaders in Redwood City, CA who have been organizing for the past two years to bring new public schools to the community.
I’m not talking about “parent involvement” or “parent engagement,” which have become broad terms that include everything from parents reading to their children and helping them with homework to volunteering for the school’s annual fundraiser. These are important, but parents also have a critical role to play in the public arena.
Public institutions tend to be only as effective as the public demands they be. The people closest to a problem are often the ones best able to identify and realize the solution. A healthy democracy with effective public schools depends on having informed and engaged citizens who are connected to their community leaders and each other.
Innovate Public Schools works with passionate parent leaders in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area who want to improve local schools and help them to connect to one another and to build their collective power to make real and lasting change in their community. A “leader” isn’t someone with a formal title or who is wealthy and educated. They’re parents driven by a passion for making sure not only their own children, but all children, receive the high-quality public education they deserve and who are willing to push themselves and others to achieve that. Effective parent groups don’t have one leader – they are comprised of many leaders.
More than two dozen parent leaders have driven the campaign to improve public education in Redwood City. Over two years, they engaged over 900 other parents in the community, met with more than 25 elected officials and community leaders and planned and ran two stand-room-only community action forums to ask elected officials to share their perspective and pledge their public commitment to working with parents. Thanks to their efforts, two new schools are opening in Redwood City this fall and the district is implementing major efforts to turn around one of its persistently low-performing schools. These parents haven’t called it a day. They’re still organizing the community, making calls and going to school board and city meetings and they won’t stop until every child really is getting a great education. That’s the power of organized parents.
“We don’t possess academic titles or bring in six-figure salaries, but we have come together and overcome our personal fears and insecurities to speak directly to our elected officials about our experiences so that we can be heard. One thing is for sure: we won’t return to the status quo. We will reach our goal: a fair education for all of our children and for all the children that have been forgotten and left behind.”
– Maritza Leal, Innovate Public Schools Parent Leader
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Jose Arenas is Managing Director, Organizing with Innovate Public Schools. Follow on Twitter, @InnovateSchools.