Not Your Mother’s PTA

By Jason Tanz — February 02, 2001 17 min read
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Activists in a poor city neighborhood are shaking up the local school board—and long-held assumptions about parents’ groups.

Though it was a chilly October night, Lisa Ortega shrugged off the cold as she stood outside the Bronx apartment building of District 8 school board member Julia Rodriguez. She hadn’t bothered to put a coat on over her T-shirt, but she was moving around a lot, waving her arms, marching in place, shouting at the top of her lungs. Gathered with her outside the building were about 60 other mothers, fathers, and children from District 8, which extends from the relatively affluent Throgs Neck neighborhood south into the notorious streets of Hunts Point, one of New York City’s poorest areas. The crowd was hopped up on adrenaline and anger; some carried picket signs that read, “Julia, Stop Lying To Us!” As she looked at the excited faces around her, Ortega was warmed by their fury. People began chanting: “Max Messer must go!” Immediately, Ortega joined in. “Max Messer must go! Max Messer must go!”

Ortega had brought her 2-year-old with her, and looking down at him, she could see that he, too, was worked up. Like the adults around him, he was chanting; too young to get his mouth around the words “must go,” he simply repeated, “Mass Messer, Mass Messer!”

Max Messer was District 8’s superintendent and an archenemy of Mothers on the Move, the group orchestrating the protest. During Messer’s 21 years atop the district, MOM charged, schools in the poorer areas had been ignored while those in the wealthier parts had enjoyed generous funding, better test scores, and more attention. MOM members had railed against the inequity in angry letters and impassioned pleas before school leaders, but Messer, they claimed, simply ignored them. So, too, did Rodriguez, a Messer ally on the District 8 board. During the public comment segment of board meetings—a time often monopolized by MOM members—Rodriguez rudely cut speakers off. On more than one occasion, she had gone so far as to unplug the microphone midsentence.

At her apartment, after an hour or so of the chanting, Rodriguez confronted the protesters. Standing in the lobby of her building with her hair in curlers, she placed two fingers to her lips and then to her rear—shorthand for “kiss my ass.” Then she turned and headed back into her apartment, drawing hoots and jeers from the crowd.

MOM organizer Lisa Ortega is not exactly your typical soccer mom.

That October night was four years ago. Rodriguez tells a different version of the events. She denies that she ventured outside: It was a neighbor who confronted the protesters, she says, and he scattered the crowd when he brandished a bat and announced that police were on the way. But whatever actually transpired, the protest proved to be a big night for MOM and Lisa Ortega. Thumbing its nose at the tea-and-cookies mentality of the PTA and traditional parents’ groups, MOM would continue its assault on Rodriguez and Messer, picketing school board meetings and fanning the flames of administration scandals. Eventually, Messer would retire, Rodriguez would soften, and MOM members would become New York City’s most prominent example of the new breed of activists challenging the troubled PTA as well as traditional definitions of what reformers call “parent involvement.”

For Ortega, the night was her first real taste of in-your-face activism. And she loved it. As a 28-year-old single mom raising three children in one of New York City’s toughest neighborhoods, she was fed up with the local school and its chronic textbook shortages and thick-as-thieves bureaucracy. She had tried to change things through traditional channels—there had been any number of meetings with the principal and teachers, and she had even become an officer in the parents’ association. But no one seemed to care. Now, only a couple of months after joining MOM, she was standing on the street, demanding that those in authority listen to her. She was thrilled, invigorated, and about to begin a new life as a full-time education activist.

Of course, Lisa Ortega is not exactly your typical soccer mom. In 1990, just six years before that evening in the Bronx, she was sitting in the prison on Rikers Island. The Brooklyn native started dealing drugs at 12, around the time her parents separated, selling dollar joints to kids at school. Soon, she was doing dope herself: first marijuana, then angel dust, cocaine, and heroin. Though she dropped out of school after 9th grade, she passed her GED test with flying colors, despite showing up stoned for the exam.

At 17, Ortega got married. By then, she had had an abortion and a miscarriage and was a hard-core drug user. Her husband was an addict, too, but he had a job, which made him “my dream guy,” Ortega says. A few months into the marriage, she gave birth to her first daughter, Jadine. Her second child, Elisabeth, followed a little more than a year later, in 1989. With two mouths to feed as well as her consuming drug addiction, Ortega turned once again to dealing. Usually, she took her kids with her to the street corner where she worked, plunking them down on a piece of cardboard while she peddled heroin.

It wasn’t long before Ortega’s lifestyle caught up with her. Twice, she was busted for selling drugs to an undercover police officer. The first arrest netted her a 45-day stint at Rikers; after the second, she was given a two-year sentence. Her children first stayed with a neighbor but then moved in with Lisa’s father. Her half sister dropped out of school to care for them.

Eventually, Ortega kicked her habit. After eight months in prison, she was chosen for a new drug-treatment program and ordered to take part in daily rehab. About this time, one of her closest friends contracted AIDS and insisted that Ortega quit using drugs. “How can you still get high?” the friend demanded. “You’ve got babies out there, and I can’t have kids at all.”

Ortega broke down sobbing. “That was a revelation,” she says. She never used drugs again. To this day, she will not eat a poppy seed bagel.

Clean, released from prison, and newly separated at 24, Ortega returned to her children in 1992. She spent some time in Connecticut, working as a building superintendent in exchange for an apartment, collecting welfare, and learning to be a better mother. In 1994, she returned to New York and gave birth to her third child, Kendall. Living in a Bronx homeless shelter, she sent her kids to the local school, P.S. 75. It had no resources or books, and the classrooms felt sterile and institutional. “Shelter kids” were herded into separate classes, Ortega says, and expectations for achievement were low.

Not long after she joined the parents’ association, Ortega saw a notice at the local community center about an organization called Mothers on the Move. She was hooked.

“I was like: ‘Wow. This is education?’ ” she explains. “And your suggestions and opinions were seen as negative. To see the principal was like asking to see the pope.”

To change things, Ortega got involved. First, she joined her school’s parents’ association. She also tried to make herself known at the school, walking around the halls a few minutes every day and sitting in the principal’s office to watch the interaction between parents and administration. Eventually, she became the association’s secretary, but even that proved a big disappointment. The group held meetings sparingly, and parents were rarely encouraged to attend. Association leaders regularly called on moms and dads to work fund-raisers and bake sales, but they made decisions about how to spend the money without consulting parents, often meeting in secret.

Not long after she joined the parents’ association, Ortega saw a notice at the local community center about a Bronx organization called Mothers on the Move. “The name was cute,” Ortega remembers, “and then underneath the name, it said, ‘We are fighting for education.’ Period, point blank. I was hooked.”

Housed in a former storefront across from a park in the South Bronx, the Mothers on the Move office is bursting with energy and pride. Fliers plastered to the windows advertise free bus rides to Washington, D.C., to attend a “Redeem the Dream” rally. The Mothers on the Move statement of beliefs and principles is posted as well and reads, in part: “We are organizing to build a just society, where there is equal economic, social, and political opportunity for all. We celebrate the power of our diversity. We invite people to join us and share in the struggle to reach our goals.” In fact, the group has expanded its agenda to include tenants’ rights, neighborhood safety, and other community concerns.

In some respects, MOM resembles any other garden-variety nonprofit. It gets grants from such old-line funders as the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, and its five paid staffers oversee a latticework of volunteer committees. The group even charges its 400 members $10 annual dues.

MOM is anything but milquetoast. A mural on its building shows a group of woman marching out of flames towards the scales of justice.

But MOM is anything but milquetoast. A mural spray painted across the front of the building depicts a group of women marching, from right to left, out of flames and toward the scales of justice. Photographs in the office depict demonstrations at school board meetings; one taken at Yankee Stadium shows a woman protesting New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner’s bid for a new, publicly funded ballpark. The woman is holding a sign that reads, “Today’s math lesson for Rudy Giuliani: 1 stadium for G. Steinbrenner = 50 schools for 25,000 children.”

Oddly enough, this grassroots effort focusing on better education for kids grew out of an adult literacy class. One day in 1990, Barbara Gross, program director for the Bronx Educational Services, a nonprofit organization that marries adult education and community involvement, read a newspaper article analyzing reading scores citywide. Always looking to give her students assignments that illustrate the impact of education on the neighborhood, she handed out copies. Her students were alarmed to find that their kids’ schools consistently ranked lowest in the city. An education system that had failed to teach them to read was now failing their children, as well.

Gross and her students decided to visit a local 4th grade class to talk with the kids about the importance of reading and to urge them to stay in school. But the parents were horrified at what they found. Upon their arrival, the teacher demanded that her students “listen up so that you don’t end up on welfare like your parents.” Shrugging, she turned to the visitors. “Maybe you can do something with them. Nobody else can.”

Members of the literacy class left the school that day in tears. Working with Gross, who had a background in community organizing, they soon were studying education issues and local budget fights. Later that year, Bronx Educational Services founded the organization that would eventually go by the name Mothers on the Move. The group’s goal: alert parents to the miserable state of local education, arm them with knowledge about the school system’s inner workings, and then fight back.

MOM quickly made a royal nuisance of itself. Members hung around outside classrooms and passed out leaflets to parents. “Did you know that this school is so bad that the state may take it over?” they asked. “Did you know that only 35 percent of children at this school are reading at grade level?” MOM members also canvassed the neighborhood, knocking on doors and urging residents to attend meetings. At one school, they took teachers to task for parking on what should have been the children’s playground. At others, they blamed principals and district administrators for textbook shortages. They also charged parents’ associations with blindly supporting failing schools.

After setting its goal of alerting parents to the miserable state of local education, MOM quickly made a royal nuisance of itself.

And they made enemies. One principal sabotaged a MOM meeting by distributing fliers that declared it had been canceled. Rumors circulated that MOM members were beating up teachers. The group was getting an unsavory reputation. “Once parents got outside the role that was expected of them, there was trouble,” Gross remembers.

The group didn’t back down, however. During the summer of 1992, MOM invited the District 8 board to discuss a few neighborhood problems. When none of the members showed up, more than 100 parents were left stewing until a few of them seized upon the idea of staging a sit-in at district headquarters. After alerting local TV stations and newspapers, they hailed a caravan of cabs, and within a few hours, the central office was overrun with parents demanding action and kids scampering through the halls. The school board, cowed by the ferocity of the parents and the unblinking eye of the press, agreed to a meeting.

“That was the moment that the group gelled,” Gross says. “Suddenly, we were perceived by the district as a group to contend with.”

MOM’s tactics have always sparked controversy. Parents’ associations and school officials charge the organization is more concerned with getting attention than making real change. The group’s protests and inflammatory rhetoric, they say, have done more harm than good, antagonizing officials and dividing parents. But others in the Bronx contend school leaders must sometimes be goaded into action. Mothers on the Move may at times be antagonistic, they say, but parental involvement is the key to school improvement, and the group is turning once-complacent moms and dads into a much-needed battalion of activists.

“They have been a beacon of light,” says Eric Zachary of New York University’s Institute of Education and Social Policy, which has worked with MOM since 1995. “They truly broke new ground.”

Political activism is certainly not the trademark of the PTA, the most famous of parents’ groups. Though it is a player in education issues at the federal level—it was key to launching the school-lunch program and setting up the Department of Education—local chapters seldom mix it up politically. According to some critics, the PTA has been AWOL during the school reform movement of the past 15 years. At the same time, membership has dropped to about 6.6 million—down 45 percent since 1964. “The PTA now is in crisis,” says Howie Schaffer, spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based Public Education Network. “Times have changed, and the PTA has not really grown with those changes.”

According to some critics, the PTA has been AWOL during the school reform movement of the past 15 years.

PTA leaders acknowledge some of these troubles. Once an activist force, the group is now seen as a champion of the bake sale and fund-raiser. “That image has haunted us,” says PTA spokeswoman Patty Yoxall. “We got complacent.”

Today, the PTA is struggling hard to recapture members and the activist spirit. In 1997, the group named its first black president, Lois Jean White, and launched an initiative to reach out to inner-city parents—a population that has never been a big part of the PTA, even in its heyday. “We’re trying to reach out to the underserved population in the country,” says Pat Woodward, the association’s co-chair. “There’s so many groups in these inner cities that are not involved in their children’s education.”

Many MOM members like Ortega, however, have rejected the traditional parent association as ineffectual. Seven years ago, Lucretia Jones was vice president of the parents’ group at the school where her son, Sati, was in 8th grade when she saw her first MOM flier. She knew the school was having problems—it had no science lab, few textbooks, and a substandard gifted program—but until she attended her first MOM meeting, she didn’t know such problems plagued the entire district. She tried to push her parents’ association to take on these issues and demand information and results from the principal. But before long, she joined the MOM board of directors. She remains active in the group, even though her two children have left District 8.

“It’s really empowering to know that this is what’s wrong in the community and know what we need to do,” Jones says. “Even though I have no kids in public school now, the fight is still there. Every child won’t have the opportunity that my children have.”

MOM’s campaign against superintendent Max Messer is perhaps the ultimate proof that its hard-nosed tactics can work. Messer was an entrenched power in the New York City schools—he once headed the city’s superintendents’ association—and he was well-regarded and well-liked by many community leaders. But MOM members saw him as the root of disparity between schools in the rich parts of the district and those in the poorer areas. They say he refused to meet with parents from the South Bronx and was openly disdainful of them at school board meetings.

MOM members tried to pressure Messer into action. They started by gathering information, breaking down reading scores throughout the district, and surveying teachers about the availability of supplies and texts in their schools. At district meetings, so many MOM members showed up with banners that board members tried—unsuccessfully—to pass a resolution prohibiting signs. MOM members also met with the city’s schools chancellor and sent letters to officials documenting Messer’s failings. And they fed their data and protest information to the local media, stirring up bad press for the superintendent. When allegations of vote fraud surfaced after a 1996 board election, MOM members claimed Messer’s supporters were guilty of Tammany Hall-style corruption.

In 1997, Messer retired. Although he did not blame MOM for his departure, many observers in the Bronx say the group generated the pressure that led to his exit. A sign in the MOM office reads, “Max Messer: 1975-1997.” When then-schools chancellor Rudy Crew named the superintendent’s replacement, he rejected the school board’s choice—a Messer colleague whom MOM opposed—and picked instead Betty Rosa, a school principal who was more palatable to MOM.

MOM also claims to have won over Julia Rodriguez, the target of their protest that cold October night. Rodriguez still sits on the school board, but she no longer interrupts MOM members at the microphone. She even sings the group’s praises. “They used to come to the meetings and use offensive language,” Rodriguez explains. “With time, they learned how to behave. And I learned, too. . . . If they call me, I’m willing to help them. They are fighting for their children to have a better education.”

Throughout the Messer battle, Ortega was always on the front lines. At protests, she yelled the loudest and hurled insults at the superintendent. “Racist!” she would holler. “You’re out of here, fella!”

Today, Ortega smiles when she talks about Rodriguez. “We broke her down,” she says.

It is 7 o’clock one evening this past fall, and Lisa Ortega sits with some fellow organizers and neighbors around a table at Casita Maria, the community center where Ortega first learned about MOM. There’s pizza and soda on a side table, and the participants’ children play in an adjoining room.

Two years ago, Ortega was given a $24,000-a-year post as a MOM organizer. When the offer was made, Ortega nearly cried. She had been on welfare since she was 17. “I never thought I could be part of society this way,” she says. “This is how things get done in this world. I’ve used a lot of social services in my life, and nothing has ever given me the sense of power or well-being that I am in control of my life as Mothers on the Move has. Nothing.”

People have come to Casita Marita tonight to discuss a MOM proposal to send teams of community parents and outside educators into classes and grade teachers according to criteria developed with New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy. Test scores in the south side of the district are still low. What’s more, reading scores have actually dropped. Sheila Stowell, a MOM organizer, makes the point with a chart. “That scares the crap out of me,” Stowell says. The parents nod in agreement.

Ortega and other MOM members have discussed the idea of community reviews with Betty Rosa, but, as of tonight, she has yet to sign off. (The superintendent later agreed to it.) So, in typical MOM fashion, the group is plotting battle against the woman it once saw as a friend. “There’s so much action to take in the next six weeks to force her into a corner so she has no choice but to give us what we want,” Stowell insists.

In typical MOM fashion, the group is plotting a new battle.

Ana Rosado, a longtime and outspoken MOM member, leaps out of her seat and paces around the table, taking the floor for herself. She wears a black poncho and moves fluidly, punctuating her speech by thrusting her finger into the air. “We don’t sit back!” she says. “We’ll never get anything done if we don’t push the issue. We must push on.”

Over the next several weeks, it is decided, MOM will alert local media and attend the next two school board meetings with letters of support for the reviews. It will put the heat on Rosa. And if Rosa does not approve, members will storm her office in protest.

A couple of the attendees are nervous about such an aggressive approach. “Can there be legal ramifications of that?” asks one man. “Does anyone ever get hurt?” asks Yvette, a soft-spoken mother.

“I’ve never seen it,” says Ortega. “And I’ve been around a lot.”


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