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Activism: Reaching Broader Group Still a Problem

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Citywide and statewide parents' groups are finding one of their biggest problems to be the relatively low participation rate of low-income and minority parents.

"There is a small number of parents in any city who are attracted to citywide school issues," said Marcia Klenbort, director of apple Corps in Atlanta.

Most parents get interested in school at their child's classroom level. Some parents will hang around to deal with schoolwide problems. And then the hardy few will stay in the room to understand the complicated decisions that are made at the citywide level, she said.

Unfortunately, Ms. Klenbort said, few among the latter group are low-income or minority parents.

'The Smell of Failure'

Many such parents--particularly those who had academic problems themselves as children--are intimidated by schools, said Ruth Nickse, director of an adult-literacy project at Boston University. "For many people," she noted, "the smell of failure is chalk dust."

That initial intimidation is compounded, other experts said, by the poor reception such parents often receive from school officials in one-to-one meetings to resolve their children's educational problems.

Minority and low-income parents "cannot keep being knocked down," said Lola Glover, director of the Coalition for Quality Education in Toledo, Ohio. "They need to feel that they can resolve some problems--no matter how minute--having to do with the school system."

Otherwise, said Ms. Nickse, they are likely to say, "I'm sick to death of what's happening in this school, but when the note comes for a parent-teacher meeting, I throw it in the wastepaper basket."

Needs Not Met

Another problem, said Zakiya Stewart of the Citizens Education Center Northwest, is that citywide organizations often fail to address the needs of low-income and minority parents, whose primary concern is the academic progress of their own children.

The first thing they are told when they come to meetings, said Ms. Stewart, is "We can't talk about individual kids." She added: "Often, the organizations don't want the parents there to address their needs; they want them there to provide a broader constituency."

Tokenism

Though she agreed that minority parents are often asked to "buy into" the organization's agenda at the expense of their own priorities, Ms. Glover cited a larger problem affect-ing both white and minority parents--"tokenism." When only a token number of parents are put on school committees and task forces, she said, their voice may be heard, but it carries no weight in the final decisionmaking process. And parents who know they cannot effect change, she said, won't come.

Poor parents also face such practical barriers to membership as the cost of transportation and babysitters, said Ms. Stewart, and parents' groups must seek ways to overcome them if they are to become truly representative.

New Efforts

Several citizens' groups--including those in Toledo, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.--have begun programs designed specifically to reach out to "hard-to-reach" parents. But such efforts are difficult, the leaders said, and progress is slow.

Ms. Glover's group is helping parents "adopt" a school in much the same way businesses do.

"We don't have any answers," she said. "It's not a panacea. But we feel good about beginning to see some things happen that we've wanted to have happen for a long time."

The participation of these parents will, in the long run, be "key," she said, in making a difference in inner-city schools.--lo

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