On a sunny Saturday morning in early March, around 40 parents — mostly mothers — sat in a small room in a downtown Brooklyn office building at desks arranged in rows. They faced a screen emblazoned with the words “Power and Authority.”
“When you think about authority, what do you think about?” asked Claudette Agard, a parent leader with the Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ), an organization that fights for equality in New York City’s schools.
“Control!” one mother called out. “Government!” another added. “Política,” offered one woman, who wore an earpiece so she could hear the Spanish translator speaking through a headset at the back of the room.
“Do you think about authority figures?” Agard continued. “What authority figures do you think of?”
“Parents,” a woman responded.
“Ooh, I like that!” Agard shot back.
The parents were attending the CEJ’s first Parent Power School of 2015. The program began two and a half years ago with the goal of helping parents with children in public schools across the five boroughs understand the city’s school system. “It’s kind of morphed into a much more robust way of having in-depth discussions about what’s happening in the city and why,” said the group’s coordinator, Natasha Capers.
The most recent session of Parent Power School comes on the heels of an effort by the Department of Education, led by Chancellor Carmen Fariña, to encourage parental involvement in the city’s public school system. The department has aggressively advertised its call for parents to apply to one of the city’s 36 Community and Citywide Education Councils (CECs), which meet regularly to discuss and provide input on policy issues related to public education.
This year has seen a substantial uptick in the number of parents vying for a spot on one of the councils. During the last election period, in 2013, by the end of the fourth week, 309 parents had applied, according to the DOE. This year, that number had more than doubled, to 731. At press time, more than 900 parents had applied. The deadline, which was originally set for March 11, was extended to March 16, after the program received such a positive response.
Fariña, herself a former New York City public school teacher and principal, attributes the increased interest in CECs to the department’s push to get the word out. “We’ve advertised in a lot of languages, number one,” she told the Village Voice. “We’ve also really made the superintendents part of the application process. We’ve encouraged superintendents to encourage principals. We’ve spoken to PTA presidents. I think we’ve been much more specific and said, ‘We really welcome your participation.’ ”
T. Elzora Cleveland, a parent leader with CEJ and a member of the DOE’s Panel for Educational Policy, said Fariña “gets it.” “The outreach has been phenomenal,” she says. “The trickle-down effect absolutely worked this time.” Cleveland sees parental involvement as an integral part of a healthy education system.
Parents have the freedom to speak openly about problems at their children’s school, whereas teachers and administrators may be reluctant to stir the pot. “The DOE can’t say certain things,” Agard told the attendees at Parent Power School. “But we can. They work for the system, but we don’t. Parents have to organize parents. You’re the expert. You’re the parent voice. No one else can talk to that but you.”
Some parents were at Parent Power because they wanted to be able to effect change at their child’s school. Others were gathering information to take back to parent leaders in their district. Mollita Muhammad, a 42-year-old mother of three, was concerned about testing in New York City public schools. “I don’t want teachers that only teach to the test,” she said. “I would prefer experiential learning for my children and for all kids.”
But for many attendees, the biggest issue was parental involvement itself. Nuala O’Doherty, a 46-year-old lawyer with five children who lives in Jackson Heights, Queens, said, “My biggest issue is educating parents.” She wants New York City parents to attend a four-day “parent college” before enrolling their children in public school. “Four classes on how the structure of education works, the power structure — what’s a principal, who’s the parent advocate in the school, the superintendent.”
Fariña welcomes such input. She said she has held 22 town hall meetings with parent groups since September. “For me, having people to go to, to voice what I’m trying to do, and then having them be part of decision-making just makes my job easier,” she said. “To be able to explain what we want to do rather than apologize after the fact, to me, is just common sense.”
The organizers of Parent Power School hoped to instill a sense of control in the attendees. Agard’s “Power and Authority” presentation continued with a slide that contained the definition of “power” — “The ability to influence the behavior of others or the course of events” — along with an image of a lightning bolt; a photo of a large group of protesters carrying a banner reading “Black Lives Matter”; and the infamous photo of African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics.
“When we unify,” Agard said, “we have power.”