Families & the Community

Studies, Sit-Ins Earn ACORN’s Activists Voice In Education

By John Gehring — February 18, 2004 8 min read
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Protesters affiliated with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a national activist group that works on behalf of low-income people.

Protesters affiliated with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a national activist group that works on behalf of low-income people, voice their opposition in March 2001 to a proposal in New York City to have a private company manage a group of low-performing schools. The protests by ACORN were credited with helping to sway parents’ votes against the idea.
—File photo by Justin Lane/The New York Times

The problem seemed as predictable as the seasons: Teachers who started the school year in Chicago’s toughest schools left poor neighborhoods like North Lawndale and Little Village for jobs in leafy suburbs.

But when local organizers for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now—the nation’s largest advocacy group for low- and moderate-income families—got busy on the revolving-door issue, things started to happen.

The campaign for a more stable teaching force in Chicago was quintessential ACORN: banging on the doors of power to demand a role in solving problems, while coming armed with policy research and lobbying acumen to bolster its in- your-face tactics.

In Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Oakland, Calif., and Philadelphia, to name a few cities where it has been active, ACORN has emerged as a major player in K-12 education issues. Its army of organizers has tackled everything from a lack of stop signs near schools to such vexing issues as teacher quality and academic performance.

“Our basic philosophy is, we’re trying to get people from the community involved, and that will help push policymakers in the right direction,” said Liz Wolff, ACORN’s Dallas-based national research director. “All you see are the demonstrations, and people think that’s all we do, but we do a lot of door-knocking and leadership training.”

In Chicago, members spent hours rounding up residents and organizing house meetings to come up with a plan to help train paraprofessionals—most of whom live in the neighborhoods—to earn teaching credentials. Along the way, they issued a damning report documenting the high teacher-turnover rates and cited research showing that teachers stay longer when they come from the community.

ACORN organizers then brought together a coalition of more than 100 union members, Chicago public school officials, higher education leaders, and paraprofessionals. At a “Grow Our Own” meeting last month, they were able to secure the support of Iris Y. Martinez, a Democratic state senator, to introduce legislation to help paraprofessionals earn teaching licenses. Ms. Martinez filed a bill Feb. 6, and the Illinois legislation now has four other senators as co-sponsors.

ACORN members followed up by taking several bus trips to the state Capitol in Springfield to lobby lawmakers to support the effort.

Walking the Line

Founded in Arkansas 34 years ago as an outgrowth of the National Welfare Rights Organization, ACORN has 100,000 members organized into 500 neighborhood chapters in 40 cities.

John Beam, the executive director of the National Center for Schools and Communities at Fordham University in New York City, says ACORN has been effective at drawing on its decades of community organizing in its work to improve schools.

His center worked with ACORN to evaluate its education campaigns, concluding with a report released last spring. At its best, the report said, ACORN has been effective in moving from victories on what Mr. Beam calls “dignity issues"—fixing leaky roofs in schools or having more crossing guards outside school buildings—to addressing harder-to-solve problems, such as the governance of schools and the qualifications of their teachers.

“ACORN has a long history,” said Mr. Beam, who was an organizer with the group in the 1970s. “Everyone doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

“They have managed to walk this interesting line between having this very aggressive advocacy stance and, on a practical level, having effective working relationships.”

Anne C. Hallett, the founder and former executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, an influential Chicago-based group that has often worked with ACORN, said the group is so well organized that school leaders know they ignore its members at their own peril.

Even so, she said, school officials sometimes don’t know quite what to make of the group.

“In general, school districts are a little cautious of any community organization, especially one that can wield the kind of power ACORN has,” Ms. Hallett said. “ACORN does their work by creating relations, and they have power because they can turn out a lot of people to raise hell if they have to.”

One illustration of the group’s clout came in Philadelphia. After Paul G. Vallas left Chicago to become the chief executive officer of the Philadelphia public schools in 2002, ACORN members took him on a bus tour of the city’s schools. They also met with Mr. Vallas at a church to share their concerns about teacher quality, after releasing a study showing teacher-turnover rates in “ACORN neighborhoods” were twice as high as the district’s average.

At the meeting, Mr. Vallas expressed his support for ACORN’s teacher-mentoring program, “ACORN to Oaks,” which has helped retain teachers in some Philadelphia schools.

But ACORN isn’t always so collaborative.

The group has been active in New York for more than two decades, issuing a series of influential reports documenting inequities in city schools called “Secret Apartheid,” launching a school improvement campaign in the South Bronx focused on student achievement and teacher quality, and helping to establish several high schools with a focus on community-justice organizing in low-income neighborhoods.

“Children of ACORN members are low-income and live in places where the schools don’t work,” said Ismene Speliotis, an ACORN organizer in New York City. “When you talk to them about how to change their neighborhood, right after they talk about housing and heat or rats, they tell you the schools stink.”

The organization led efforts to defeat a plan by Edison Schools Inc. to privately manage five schools in New York three years ago. Harold O. Levy, then the schools chancellor, and many city school board members supported the plan, but the community group, contending that the for-profit company would undermine parent and community control of the schools, organized a successful campaign that ultimately led to a resounding rejection of Edison’s proposals.(“New York City Votes Are a Blow to Edison,” April 11, 2001.)

Even so, Adam Tucker, Edison’s vice president for communications, said he doesn’t view the community group as an adversary.

“We know that they care about making sure parents and the community have a voice and power in their schools, and this is something we agree with and understand,” Mr. Tucker said.

But he also asserts that ACORN misrepresented Edison’s efforts in New York. “They ran a misinformation campaign,” Mr. Tucker maintained, “and that is unfortunate, not just for Edison, but for the families and children of those schools.”

Tactics Criticized

Doug Bloch, the political director for ACORN in California, said despite the group’s experience and ability to organize quickly around an issue, it’s not uncommon for activists to be shut out by school districts.

“Decisionmakers find it very easy to be dismissive of poor people and people of color,” he said. “They can say, ‘Yeah, I understand you’re angry, but you don’t understand the complexity of the issue.’

“But when we have research,” he continued, “then you can have someone at the school board meeting who has all the righteous anger of a pissed-off parent, but who can also communicate and talk about the policy stuff. It gives us an extra level of legitimacy.”

One of the group’s most visible successes, in fact, is an elementary school in Oakland. When it was shut down more than a decade ago, it became an abandoned building drawing drug dealers and prostitutes, a sad symbol of decay in a poor but proud neighborhood.

But after ACORN organizers brought more than 200 people out for a march on the California district’s headquarters—and released a report showing the large number of substitute teachers in high-minority schools— things started to turn around.

By 2000, the school had reopened as ACORN- Woodland Elementary School. Members of the organization hired the staff, the principal is an ACORN member, and other members sit on the school’s governance board.

Not surprisingly, ACORN’s sometimes-aggressive tactics have their critics.

Kerry Mazzoni, who served as California’s secretary of education under former Gov. Gray Davis, found some 300 ACORN members staging a sit-in by her Sacramento office after a rally last spring to protest state budget cuts in education.

“It wasn’t the tactic of storming my office that got them the meeting,” Ms. Mazzoni said. “It actually scared my staff. All they had to do was call my office. I would have set up an appointment with them.

“Sometimes those tactics are off-putting to people, and it could work against them, particularly with people who are sympathetic to their issues and want to work with them,” she said.

ACORN activists, however, argue that such methods help dramatize the group’s point, as was evident in Baltimore when local activists took over a school board meeting in December to protest the layoff of some 700 school district employees.

Some ACORN members—one shouting through a bullhorn—made themselves comfortable in the board members’ seats and declared themselves the new school board before they were hauled off by police.

Patricia Welch, the president of the Baltimore board and the dean of the school of urban studies at Morgan State University, said that while she respects ACORN’s work, she believes the group’s style can hurt its cause.

“Sometimes, I disagree with the way they go about delivering their message,” she said.

Said Madeline Talbot, ACORN’s head organizer in Illinois and a 30-year veteran of education issues: “You’re always concerned when you’re organizing low-income people with how to get a seat at the table. Once we get a seat at the table, we’re nice people to deal with.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.

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