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Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as Parents' Organization Counts Chapters in 26 States

Parents' Organization Counts Chapters in 26 States

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Cincinnati

Parents for Public Schools, which was conceived in a Jackson, Miss., living room in 1989 by parents who were determined to resist middle-class flight and send their children to public schools, has come a long way in less than 10 years.

The national network now has 54 chapters in 26 states, recruiting people to support public schools and advocating that parents be equal partners in making decisions about them. So when Kelly Allin Butler, the executive director of pps, invited 15 leading school reformers to join members at their May 1-3 national leadership conference here, every one of them accepted.

The organization, based where it was founded, got a boost when it was featured in a recent report by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform that examines public-engagement efforts around the country.

Kristin Kurtenbach of Millennium Communications Group Inc. in Washington, who conducted some of the research for the report, told PPS members that their network is unique because it's the only national organization focused solely on parents; it has both a national presence and connections in communities; its focus is systemwide, rather than on individual schools; and it's the only group actively recruiting people back into public schools.

The conference provided a rare opportunity for grassroots parent activists to question and get advice from such panelists as John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington and a former top congressional aide, and Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington organization that focuses on forming partnerships between higher education and K-12 systems.

The "true believers," as Ms. Butler calls PPS members, also had time to trade notes among themselves, share success stories, and give advice to people considering forming a chapter. Parents from communities as diverse as rural Memphis, Mich.; Charleston, S.C.; and Portland, Ore., say they are mulling joining the network to help them face problems ranging from poor labor-management relations to racial tension to declining state funding and overcrowded classrooms.

They heard success stories from the Jackson chapter, which pushed for a 400-student alternative school for disruptive youngsters and played a big part in drafting a plan to deal with overcrowding and spend $30 million in state aid for facilities.

In Pitt County, N.C., the PPS chapter landed an $83,000 grant to hire a parent-involvement coordinator to train parents in everything from helping their children with homework to serving fruitfully on school improvement committees, reported Susan Foreman, the president of the PPS national board and a Pitt County resident.

The Cincinnati chapter of PPS hosted the meeting at the Mayerson Academy, the city's state-of-the-art training center for teachers. Panels examined parent involvement and school quality; parent involvement at the district level; and parent advocacy and civic engagement.

Even with the many strides that the Cincinnati district has made toward improving its teaching force, it was clear that parents here remain concerned about teacher quality and accountability.

Margaret Hulbert, a PPS board member from Cincinnati, prodded Tom Mooney, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, to put parents on a committee that is now considering a new teacher-evaluation system. Mr. Mooney admitted that the school system isn't accustomed to thinking that way. At the same time, Ms. Hulbert said she hadn't understood the relationship between teacher training and quality until recently.

"We need to eliminate barriers between parents and teachers," Ms. Hulbert said. "Tom and I have been meeting for lunch--that's a good start."

Many of the PPS members and panelists acknowledged the difficulty of simultaneously supporting the ideal of public schooling and pressing for better results. What's needed, some said, is for parents to have a solid understanding of the system.

Parents typically feel powerless and don't step forward until they feel completely frustrated, said Diane Vibhaker, of the Little Rock chapter. "That's why PPS is such a powerful organization. It helps parents get resources to address issues with," she said. "It can help parents to ask the right questions."

Ms. Haycock said parents need to ask for samples of high-quality student work and then compare it with the work their own children are doing to make sure that schools have high expectations. "Too many people have bought into the notion that change happens slowly," she told parents. "If you're not seeing measurable gains after two years, the school needs to do something different."

Chuck Jackson, the president of the Jackson, Miss., chapter, advised his fellow advocates to play "hardball politics," noting that four of the five members of the Jackson school board are either members of PPS or friendly to the group.

Mr. Jennings, a longtime aide to U.S. House Democrats, told parents to help get the word out about some of the good news in public education: the declining dropout rate among African-American students, increases in test scores, and more-difficult course-taking by high school students. "If you carp on what's wrong," he said, "you're feeding this general attitude that schools have failed."

But he also said PPS members should listen respectfully to parents who fear public schools because of safety and discipline problems, which he said must be addressed.

In addition to giving parents information and providing them with a collective voice, PPS chapters can play a role as intermediaries in districts in turmoil, some conference-goers suggested.

In Little Rock, for example, the schools have had eight superintendents in 10 years, Ms. Vibhaker said. Parents have to pressure the school system repeatedly not to shelve its strategic plan and to keep moving forward, she said.

While PPS expects to continue to grow, Ms. Butler said the organization is more concerned with signing up strong chapters than in sheer numbers. "It's not effective to sign up and hang out a banner and put out a newsletter," she said.

--ANN BRADLEY

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Page 7

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