Allies for Education

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Greenville, N.C.

In more than 40 communities nationwide, Parents for Public Schools is working to create a constituency of public school advocates and boost parent involvement.

Susan Foreman's friends tried to talk her out of it, but she wouldn't listen. They argued that she would be beating her head against a brick wall, but she shrugged them off. Now, she isn't too proud to admit they were right. But she has no intention of giving up the fight to bring parents and public schools in her community closer together.

Foreman is the founder of the Parents for Public Schools chapter here in Greenville. She is an ardent supporter of public education and, as a pediatrician, is intimately familiar with the diverse needs students bring with them to school.

The problem, as she saw it, was that too few of her friends and neighbors seemed to share her commitment. "All I heard was negative," says Foreman, the mother of three school-aged boys. "We had had really good experiences with the schools, yet everyone who moved into my neighborhood told me their childrencouldn't go to public schools."

Those attitudes were disturbing enough. Then, the school system went through a series of tumultuous events during the mid-1980s: the merger of the Greenville schools with those of surrounding Pitt County, bitter fights over new attendance boundaries, and changes in leadership. After the merger, Foreman says, "everything went kaflooie."

The answer seemed to come in a telephone call from a friend living in Jackson, Miss., where Foreman and her husband also had lived for a time. The woman told Foreman about a dramatic turnaround in attitudes toward public education in Jackson, thanks to the work of a group called Parents for Public Schools. The grassroots organization, founded in a Jackson living room in 1989, was enticing middle-class parents who had fled after desegregation back into the public schools. Its selling points: the benefits of integration, the results that involved parents had seen in Jackson schools, and the tuition savings.

"She said, 'Things have changed down here,'" Foreman recalls. "I said, 'Oh my gosh, do tell. We desperately need that. We're headed to where you are if we don't do something.'"

Thus was born the Greenville chapter of PPS. Foreman, an energetic, fast-talking dynamo who is well-known in the community, began toting the group's distinctive yellow-and-black materials everywhere she went. She would sit down next to her friends at the swimming pool, she remembers, and say, "Don't you think we need to do this?"

Since 1991, when the Jackson organization incorporated, parents in more than 40 other communities in 17 states have banded together to form affiliated chapters. They are promoting the ideal of public education, providing accurate information about schools, encouraging people to enroll their children, and pressing to increase the level of parent involvement in school governance. Ultimately, Parents for Public Schools hopes to create a national constituency of public school advocates and to become a national voice for parent involvement.

"Their attitude is that the education of all of the children is important, and not just their own child."

Kelly Allin Butler,
executive director,
Parents for Public Schools

While PPS is aiming high, it has attracted some high-powered support. Major foundations have kicked in money to help the national office develop a strategic plan and organize and support parents. A number of prominent people have agreed to serve as directors, including Anthony Alvarado, the superintendent of District 2 in New York City, and Evelyn K. Moore, the executive director of the National Black Child Institute in Washington.

John N. Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a research and advocacy group based in Raleigh, is also serving on the board and helping PPS to raise money. Parents need an independent voice in education, particularly as state legislatures debate hot-button issues like charter schools, vouchers, and tenure, Dornan believes.

The PTA, Dornan notes, simply is not set up to provide that voice because of its close organizational ties to school employees.

"What Parents for Public Schools is trying to do just desperately needs to be done," Dornan says. "This is a very thinking group. They are working to get current with what seems to be working in different places and are quick to support any attempts at innovation or different structuring of schools."

The chapters try to reach out to their entire community to mobilize resources and create allies for public schools. Members of PPS, says Kelly Allin Butler, the organization's executive director, are "big-picture people."

"Their attitude is that the education of all of the children is important, and not just their own child," Butler says. "They want to change the whole system. The role of parent involvement has dramatically changed, and no one has thought it through. It's time for parents to take their place at the table."

Typically, PPS chapters attract community leaders, Butler says. Many members are professional people with clout who recognize the value of a strong public education system to a community's overall economic and civic health. The chapters strive, not always successfully, to recruit a diverse membership across racial and economic lines.

Their greatest challenge, though, may be in sustaining parents' initial energy and commitment. To stay involved, busy parents need to see tangible successes. In Greenville, PPS's initial burst of enthusiasm has been tempered by frustrations. It turns out that Foreman's friends were on target about how difficult it would be to forge a new voice for parents.

"The problem is that educators and parents have a very different perception of what parent involvement is," she says. "Because of that, we as parents are feeling ineffective. What we consider involvement, they consider parent meddling."

Parents for Public Schools of Pitt County, which now has some 200 members, started out with a bang. The county, with a fast-growing population of 122,000, is an agricultural and manufacturing hub for eastern North Carolina. Greenville, a city of 52,000 dotted with chain restaurants, is also the home of the shady, red-brick campus of East Carolina University and its medical school.

Despite these community resources, members of PPS felt a growing gulf between the public and its schools. The gap was exacerbated by the 1986 merger of the city and county schools, creating a system of 19,000 students. The boundary changes that followed sparked racial tension in the district, which is about half white and half black. Parents decided to fight back with objective information about the good things happening in the schools.

Members of the new chapter of Parents for Public Schools, many of them PTA veterans, focused on educating themselves about issues that transcended individual schools. The group sponsored a series of lunchtime seminars on North Carolina's omnibus education legislation, educational technology, discipline, and reading. The group also organized a forum on education funding, featuring the state superintendent of public education and local state legislators, and coordinated an "Ask the Superintendent" column in the local newspaper, The Daily Reflector.

PPS members tried to recruit students by holding coffees at nursery schools to introduce parents to the public school system and involved children in the effort to be positive with a "My Teacher Is My Hero" essay contest. The winning essay was published in the newspaper.

One highlight was a 1994 picnic to promote racial awareness and diversity, co-sponsored with the Pitt County PTA Council, which drew more than 100 people to River Park North. Both white and black parents who attended acknowledged that they rarely associated with people of other races outside work.

Members of PPS also spent time preparing a detailed 52-page guide to Pitt County's 30 schools that was sold to local real estate agents so they could have reliable information. Parents with children in each school volunteered to be listed as "ambassadors" to answer newcomers' questions. The drug company Burroughs Wellcome, which has a plant in Pitt County, underwrote the printing costs.

"Ideally, all the public schools would be equal and there would not be one school that everyone wants to get into," says Sue Aldridge, who chairs a committee that works with real estate agents and is married to one. "Realtors want to know which schools parents are active in. The first questions they are asked about a house is, 'Which school district is this in?'"

Aldridge laments that the families moving into the biggest, most expensive new houses in the school district have no intention of sending their children to public schools. Some parents whose children attended a Montessori preschool are trying to start a nonsectarian private school here. All the other private schools in the district are affiliated with churches.

"People don't even try public schools," agrees Jill Camnitz, an at-home mother and a member of Parents for Public Schools who was elected last spring to the Pitt County school board. "They don't give it a chance. I would have much more understanding of people who try it, and don't find their children's needs met, than of those who never try."

Camnitz, who jokingly calls herself an "aging hippie," grew up believing she needed to be concerned about society. Instead, she finds people withdrawing.

One of her neighbors, whose child will enter kindergarten this fall, is considering home schooling, Camnitz marvels. The woman is not a particularly religious person; instead, she had heard bad things about public schools.

"I said, 'For heaven's sake, let me take you over there.' If I hadn't, she never would have gone. We had a good visit. She said, 'A lot of the things I'm fearful of, I'm not seeing,'" Camnitz recalls. "To me, the crucial thing is to go and look at the school and make your decision based on the actual situation."

Public school systems simply cannot assume anymore that everyone will send their children, notes Michael Dixon, a PPS member and Pentecostal minister who serves on the school board. "Parents might not disagree with our decisions if they understood what went into them," he says. "People are looking for something positive. We beat ourselves up about the things that don't work."

Through its activism, Parents for Public Schools of Pitt County gained a solid enough footing to launch its first joint project with the school district: a campaign for a bond issue to renovate and build schools. Parents appeared before the Pitt County commissioners, who control the district's purse strings, to plead for them to put the matter before voters. Once the local politicians agreed, PPS and the school district worked together to rally support for the $32 million bond issue. But last March, voters defeated the measure.

"That was a major blow to PPS and to the school system," Camnitz says. "It was a clear sign that something was wrong."

The bond issue, which would have meant a modest tax increase, had well-financed and vocal opposition. The man who spearheaded the anti-bond effort, in fact, is now running on a pro-voucher platform for the state Senate. But members of PPS also read the outcome as a signal that the public was still unhappy with its schools.

Foreman and others now believe that voters didn't support the measure because the public had little say in drawing up plans to spend the money. Instead, the 12-member school board and superintendent set the priorities.

Superintendent Howard L. Sosne says principals were asked to meet with PTAs to identify needs at their schools. The overall plan for the bond money was then put together by the administration and school board.

"There was no central group of parents that reviewed those and said, 'Yes, this is what we should do,'" Sosne says. "Board members saw that as their jobs. They felt that parent involvement occurred at the school level. I felt the same way."

In the wake of the defeat, PPS members took stock of their situation and realized they could not continue as they had been operating. They felt ineffective. People were beginning to burn out. And the group, made up mostly of Greenville parents, was having trouble organizing parents in other parts of the sprawling county.

The top-down process for drawing up the facilities plan, they complain, was just one more example of parents being expected to unquestioningly support decisions they had no say in.

"Other than the military, school systems tend to be one of the most autocratic systems we have in this country," observes Peter Sword, a social worker for Pitt County and a PPS member. "Even teachers' and principals' involvement is only to a certain degree."

Many active parents here have been turned off by their work on district-level task forces and committees, Sword notes. Their recommendations are watered down or shelved or contradicted by other decisions made by the administration and school board.

"People spend a lot of time, and then there is a new board and a new superintendent," he says. "Or parents are asked to participate in a decision and then the implementation is dropped."

As an example, Foreman cites an umbrella group that began meeting at Burroughs Wellcome in PPS's early days. The group included members of the county commission, school board members, administrators, representatives of the Pitt County Development Commission, the head of the local public education foundation, and members of the Chamber of Commerce's education committee.

"They were just little cogs going in circles unless they could be hooked up together," she explains. "Our goal was to synthesize the cogs in the wheel."

The group met every few months to discuss education issues. After Superintendent Sosne was hired in January 1993, he deemed it his advisory committee and charged members with developing a long-range strategic plan for the district. Burroughs Wellcome, now Glaxo Wellcome, loaned the group a strategic planner.

In March 1994, the committee submitted a final report that was accepted by the board of education. And that was that.

Foreman argued that Sosne should keep the group of prominent people active or risk wasting a golden opportunity to build community involvement and support. After about a year and a half, the committee was called back, but the meeting was poorly attended.

The superintendent says a school board committee is overseeing the implementation of the recommendations. "We have a very dynamic strategic plan," he says, "at least from the board's point of view."

From Sosne's perspective, PPS represents just one slice of life in Pitt County. The group could be a tremendous help in fighting legislation for private school vouchers and in lobbying for more funding, he says. But it should not become "a shadow board of education."

The trouble is, parents seem unlikely to go to bat for a system that makes them feel like outsiders, no matter how committed they are to public education.

Chip Cherry, the president of the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce, which is trying to forge closer partnerships with the schools, thinks the district doesn't quite know what to do with PPS.

"I think that's part of our challenge," he says, "to find a way to incorporate public feedback into that system. That's what we're trying to incrementally do--to show them in little pieces that we're not threatening."

As its fifth year begins, Parents for Public Schools of Pitt County has a new plan and high hopes. The group has created a task force made up of representatives from every school in the county. This broad-based group, parents hope, can serve as a conduit for better communication between the school administration and parents. PPS members plan to meet once a month with the school board and superintendent.

The task force also hopes to push for a formal definition of parent involvement. What should parents' roles be, for example, in drawing up the budget? Foreman, for one, suggests creating a community-based budget committee that could get a handle on how the district spends its money.

Members of the task force, in turn, are going to work to recruit more members from their schools to bring fresh blood into PPS. Increasing minority representation remains a high priority.

"Parents do not trust the administration here right now," asserts Maude C. Bishop, the owner of a Cargo Furniture store in Greenville and a PPS member. "Parents do not trust how the money is being spent."

Bishop, a gung-ho PTA member who raised $12,000 to put computers in her son's school, is the kind of savvy parent who isn't content to play an uncritical supporting role.

"I'm hoping the task force will be constantly talking to the board, the superintendent, and the schools so that all of a sudden there isn't a big decision that is made," she says. "These are public schools, and they're not being run that way."

Kande Grabiner describes herself as "a zealot for public schools," but she didn't start out that way. In fact, she never imagined she would be the parent of a public school child. That just wasn't the way things were done in her affluent neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. Parents simply budgeted between $5,000 and $12,000 a year per child for private school tuition.

But Grabiner, who is now the president of Parents for Public Schools of West Valley, approached her daughter's education differently. She decided to do a little digging. And after visiting three private schools and the local public elementary school, Grabiner and her husband were so favorably impressed that they enrolled their daughter in public kindergarten last fall.

"I was fortunate enough to take the time to go to PTA meetings and booster club meetings, and I got to know the parents who were actively involved and molding the school," says Grabiner, a partner in a marketing, design, and advertising company. "They were intelligent, well-educated, and concerned people. They weren't a bunch of flakes like I thought I would run into in public schools. Every step of the way, I was pleasantly surprised."

Grabiner is thrilled with the attention her child has received, but she herself has "taken a beating socially with most of my friends."

"As much as I care about society and the future of our country, that's not been easy," Grabiner admits of her friends' disdain. "But it's worth it to me."

In December 1994, before launching the PPS chapter, Grabiner invited 14 parents from her daughter's tony preschool to her home for coffee and dessert and a discussion of public schools. She wanted them to consider banding together to send their children to the local elementary school. At the last minute, she called The Los Angeles Times to publicize the meeting. The paper sent a reporter and photographer and put the human-interest story on the front page of its Valley edition.

Although only five of the 14 families eventually enrolled their children in public schools, the article sparked a reaction. Last fall, kindergarten enrollment at Wilbur Avenue Elementary School in Tarzana swelled by 20 percent--the school's first growth in seven years, she says.

"We had tons of phone calls from strangers who had similar thoughts but were concerned and were happy to see someone stepping up and being vocal and not being embarrassed to send their kid to public schools," she recalls.

Grabiner believes that the negative reactions to public schools in her area stem from fears about California's large classes, negative media coverage, and parents' desire for the status that comes with expensive private schooling. The same 35- to 40-year-old parents who are so dead set on private schools are themselves products of public schools, Grabiner says. "It's amusing to me to think they are so drastically different now," she says of public schools. "They aren't."

Now, PPS of West Valley, which has 30 members, is working to develop a guidebook with information about the public schools. The chapter also is working with local real estate agents to erect billboards and conduct tours of public schools for sales agents. The agents have been eager to hear good news about schools, Grabiner reports, because people can buy higher-priced homes if they don't have to budget for tuition payments.

"If the public schools go down the tubes, we've got a huge problem in our country," she says. "How can we allow that?"

Vol. 16, Issue 01

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