Published Online: February 19, 1997

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More Power to the Parents

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Parent Frederico Fraticelli battles graffiti artists at Potter-Thomas Elementary School. "We paint every morning, or whenever I'm available," he says.

Frederico Fraticelli is fighting a nonstop battle against the graffiti artists who make their marks on the walls of Potter-Thomas Elementary School. "They paint after midnight," he says. "And we paint every morning, or whenever I'm available."

Fraticelli and other members of the Home and School Association are determined to blot out the ugly reminders of the Bad Lands neighborhood that is home to their school.

In the largely Latino neighborhood north of Center City, vacant lots are strewn with litter. Wrecked and abandoned cars clog the narrow streets, some parked halfway up on sidewalks.

Inside the school, a senior citizen stationed at a table greets visitors. Fraticelli, whose daughters are in kindergarten and 3rd grade, helps other parents staple new announcements to their bulletin board. The hallways are decorated with brightly painted murals, courtesy of parents.

Down the hall in the cafeteria, parents, rather than paid employees, confidently run the show during lunchtime. "When they talk about poor people who don't care about education, it's a whole bunch of baloney," says Ruben Flores, the administrator of the Edison High School cluster of schools, which includes Potter-Thomas. "If you give them an opportunity, they will do more."

Philadelphia's 257 schools are divided into 22 clusters made up of a high school and the elementary and middle schools that feed into it.

Last month, parents showed off their prowess when the Edison cluster hosted a meeting of the city's school board. Parents--not administrators--presented an update on the progress of the Children Achieving reforms in their area.

Flores is the first to caution that the support and involvement of parents and community members didn't happen overnight. Several of the schools in his cluster have worked for years to engage the broader public in education. And many, many more Philadelphia schools have a long way to go.

Parents need to go far beyond a traditionally supportive role.

A team of experts in urban education that prepared a report for the judge who oversees the city's desegregation case put it bluntly: "Overall, the city has the lowest level of parent involvement of any urban school system this Educational Team has seen."

To tackle the problem, the local nonprofit Children Achieving Challenge is spending $758,000 this year to support the Alliance Organizing Project. The AOP trains professional community organizers who help parents in each cluster identify common issues, research solutions, and hold officials' feet to the fire to see that they get addressed.

Gary Rodwell, the alliance's executive director, says Philadelphia parents need to go far beyond a traditionally supportive role.

"Parents have to make sure that the rain is not leaking on their child's head," he says, "and that their children are not reading three grades below grade level and the environment of the school says that's OK."

To date, organizers have helped to form parent collectives in 15 to 20 schools throughout the city, involving an estimated 3,000 parents.

Last month, some of these parents staged what the project calls a "public action" meeting at Cayuga School in North Philadelphia to confront officials over a poorly handled construction project that they said created hazards for their children. In response, Superintendent David W. Hornbeck's chief of staff promised in writing to fix the problems immediately.

Far from being threatened by activist parents, Hornbeck says he sought the partnership with the alliance to try to give parents the tools they need to put pressure on schools to improve.

"If you don't have people who can bite you in the ankle, they also haven't got the power to bite anybody else in the ankle," he explains. "And a whole bunch of people in this world need their ankles bitten."

Rochelle Nichols-Solomon, the president of the AOP's board of directors, notes that some Philadelphians have worried that organizing parents may stir up anger. "There's no doubt that people are angry," she says. "We see that that can be channeled in ways that lead to change."

The district is reaching out in other ways, including Project 10,000, which seeks to recruit that number of volunteers to work in city schools in the next three years. And parents also serve on the local school councils that help develop schoolwide policies.

The councils are charged with developing plans for public engagement in their communities. To be recognized, 35 percent of the parents connected with a school must vote to elect parents to serve as council members. Currently, the district has 63 schools that have met the requirement.

The Edison cluster has provided parents with training in the components of the Children Achieving agenda. Flores says schools also are required to develop strategies to bring in parents and community members.

Felicita Melendez, who has served as the principal of Potter-Thomas for 14 years, has worked hard to make parents and community members feel welcome.

"I'm delighted that parents are here taking care of things firsthand," she says. "My parents are my forte. They are informed and given the tools to develop as leaders. They know what they are talking about. They have learned how to deal with the educational process. For a long time there was the idea that parents belonged at home, but they are discovering that they can go beyond that."

Mary Lou DiMicola, the principal at nearby Fairhill Elementary School, also has gone out of her way to involve parents during her 12 years at the school. Sixty parents and community residents now earn stipends of $250 for working 100 hours in the classrooms as teacher aides. The school also hosts workshops on computer skills and tenants' rights.

"Before I came here," DiMicola says, "parents weren't allowed in the building."

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