The era of the bake sale is nearly over. The last decade has seen traditional forms of parent involvement in schools usurped by more activist models. Rather than selling raffle tickets, parents in Kentucky serve on school site-based management committees. Texas parents don’t just sign report cards; they weigh in on whether a new math curriculum is “educationally deficient.” Moms and dads everywhere, no longer content to show up at school just once a year for open house, park themselves on campus at “parent centers.”
To Kevin Walker, the age of the parent activist has arrived none too soon. A former political organizer-he worked for Walter Mondale’s failed presidential campaign and the star-crossed movement to draft Mario Cuomo for a White House bid-he runs Project Appleseed, a nonprofit group that helps parents shed their timid, “teachers know best” attitudes and dive into the nitty-gritty of schools and education policy. Like other boosters of parent involvement in schools, the 39-year-old Walker contends that the fate of public education hinges on turning the average mom and dad into players in the school reform arena. “I want parents to be involved in policy,” he says. “It goes beyond just having input.”
Schools have been deluged with “input” during the ‘90s. Politicians, businessmen, and community leaders have all made school business their business. Even Star Wars creator George Lucas is throwing his clout-and money-around to influence schools. But the people with the most at stake are parents. For years, they’ve been demanding that school officials fix failing schools. Now they are realizing that nothing will change unless they do some of the heavy lifting themselves. “If we wait for others, the problems will never get solved,” says Charles Olson of Parents for Public Schools, a Mississippi-based advocacy organization that has set up chapters in 22 states since its founding in 1989. “We’re not going to wait any longer.”
Kevin Walker came to this conclusion in the early 1990s. Having withdrawn from the itinerant life of a veteran campaigner to spend more time with his young children, he heard that his suburban St. Louis school district was inviting parents to participate in strategic planning. Walker accepted the invitation and, bitten by the reform bug, founded a small parents’ group that eventually evolved into the local chapter of Parents for Public Schools. He soon became the Midwestern regional director of PPS, leading a successful lobbying campaign to force Missouri’s school districts to submit an annual progress report to parents.
Walker began Project Appleseed in 1993 as a side venture for his PPS chapter. But the project quickly overshadowed the chapter. Within a few months, Walker was called to the White House to discuss education policy with Clinton’s domestic advisers.
Eventually, Walker concluded that Parents for Public Schools’ early focus on stemming “white flight” was too narrow. Though he knew firsthand how bad schools can drive families from the city- when he was a boy, his middle-class parents moved to largely white suburbia for the better schools- Walker wanted to rally parents of all races and from suburban districts as well as urban systems. In the end, he parted with PPS amicably.
The core of Project Appleseed’s work is its campaign to promote parent involvement through a simple pledge, which is available on the Internet to schools and parents alike. By signing the pledge, parents agree to “take personal responsibility” for their children’s education; they promise to help their kids with homework for at least 15 minutes each school night, to volunteer at the school at least five hours a semester, and to evaluate their children’s progress every six months. Many schools require similar pledges-those receiving federal funding under Title I must use them-but Project Appleseed’s appears to be the most widely used. Walker estimates that it has made its way through 1,700 school districts to 3 million parents.
The pledge card doubles as a tool for schools and parent groups to recruit help from moms and dads. It records each parent’s name and interests-handy information for schools that want to assemble parent teams to do maintenance work, tutoring, or other volunteer work.
Beyond the pledge, Project Appleseed aims to turn parents into activists. Walker believes that many parents-particularly those in poor, urban districts-are unfairly criticized as apathetic about their children’s education. In reality, he contends, parents are stymied by the political and bureaucratic maze typical of school systems. To help, Walker and his staff of six coach mothers and fathers on dealing with teachers, principals, and administrators. The project’s Web site is also a clearinghouse of strategic information about education reform, media relations, and political organizing.
The tactics advocated by Project Appleseed aren’t exactly incendiary: One memo on the Web site advises those wrestling with uncooperative schools to “try to make your group activities positive and constructive, rather than negative, threatening, and critical.” But Walker doesn’t advise parents to duck confrontation either; he pointedly reminds them that they don’t need permission from school officials to start a group.
One of Project Appleseed’s chief missions is to help new parent groups get on their feet, something Walker says usually takes three years. “It takes that long to get up energy, to become organized, and to become a known entity,” he explains.
But one such group, Every Parent a Volunteer, expanded from a homegrown startup in Provo, Utah, to a national organization in just two years. Founders Dana Kimball-Israelsen and Brent Israelsen launched the group in 1997 when they noticed that schools with low reading test scores often had little parent involvement. Although they’d initially planned to start just a local organization, Walker urged them to be more ambitious. “Kevin told us how to get off the ground and gave us the names of helpful contacts and resources. But the best thing he gave us was encouragement,” says Kimball-Israelsen. “He told us, ‘You can do this. It needs to be done.’” Today, the organization is known for its step-by-step guide to developing a school volunteer program.
Currently, Walker is helping Iowans United To Save Our Schools--an amalgam of parents, educators, community leaders, and executives of the gaming industry-to lobby for legislation that would earmark all state revenue from Iowa’s casinos and racetracks for school construction. They failed to get a vote on the bill during a recent legislative session, but Walker predicts that it will pass next year.
For all of their heartfelt enthusiasm, organizations like Project Appleseed still must overcome preconceptions about parents’ roles in schools. A recent report from Public Agenda indicates that parents are reluctant to take part in school governance; they’d rather chaperone a field trip than sit on a curriculum committee. Teachers aren’t crazy about the idea either, and some principals claim their schools are better off without meddlesome parents. Both parents and teachers surveyed by the New York City-based polling group contend that moms and dads are better off at home, raising respectful children who are eager to learn.
Such attitudes are why Walker tries to lure parents in one step at a time. Signing the pledge at least gets parents into the classroom; once there, they may notice something-a decaying building or new teaching methods-that sparks their activist zeal. The process is gradual but vital, says Walker, because parents are the ones who must hold schools to higher standards.
As for Walker, despite a lingering temptation to join Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign, he hopes to keep leading parents through school doors for a long time. “This is probably my life’s work, and I don’t plan to change.”