“2011 has been the year of what they call the Arab Spring,” Phillip Jackson told the panel Stepping Up: The Power of the Parent Advocate at Education Nation. “2011 must also become the year of the American Parent Fall – this fall.”
As demonstrators began gathering in the financial district several blocks south, Jackson told the Rockefeller Center crowd about parent movements in Chicago. In the past decade, parents have taken over the failing Nettlehorst elementary school, and the Latino “Whittier parents” who staged a sit-in for a new library and engaged in a hunger strike to force the government to build the new high school their community of Little Village was promised.
Jackson is an education policy veteran, having served as Chief of Staff of Chicago Public Schools, Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Housing Authority and Chief of Education for the City of Chicago. Now, he is founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Black Star Project. “Now, parents must take over schools.”
The Black Star Project began in 1996 with a mission to eliminate the racial achievement gap by providing support for entire families and communities.
The achievement gap was a frequent subject at NBC News’ second annual Education Nation summit convened in New York City last week. The inseparable impact of poverty on education and the effectiveness of whole-community services also emerged as clear themes during the 3-day gathering.
Sharing the panel with Jackson, education journalist Peg Tyre (author, The Trouble With Boys) expressed the concern that some parents may not be informed enough to play such an active role. “We’re asking a lot of parents and not giving them the right tools to make sure they are making good decisions,” Tyre said.
In California, Texas and Mississippi, the new “Parent Trigger” law allows parents to fire teachers and administration and restructure their children’s’ school with a 51% majority vote, explained panelist Ben Austin, Executive Director of the Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution. The law is drawing criticism, but “the bigger problem,” Austin said, “is that parents are asking questions that no one in this room knows the answer to.”
Bill Clinton, offered the public school system as a “lump of clay” by NBC News’ Brian Williams, said he would fund schools equally at the state level rather than the current local property tax funding system, which perpetuates inequality.
Panelists universally praised the effectiveness of providing “wraparound services” for parents and families, especially from birth to age five, noting their potential to close achievement gaps. Many noted that these programs are routinely under funded.
Speakers also remarked on the economically strategic role of U.S.’s growing population of school-aged young people. “For all of you that worry about America’s long term debt, that should make you feel good because Social Security is going to be about a twenty-five year problem, after which the demographics will level up again,” said Clinton.
Urban sociologist and education researcher Pedro Noguera (author, The Trouble With Black Boys) put it another way. “It’s increasingly going to be minority children, black and brown children who will be supporting elderly white people through Social Security,” he said during the panel What’s In A ZIP Code? A Look at Inequality Across Our Public Schools.
The panel The Changing Face of Education was devoted to the special challenges facing the education of Latino children, who are a growing demographic in U.S. public schools across the country. These challenges include getting the system to prioritize bilingual education, and ending the disempowerment experienced by undocumented parents, according to Los Angeles Public Schools Superintendent John Deasy.
“I don’t think we have a 70% dropout rate, we have a pushout rate,” Deasy said. “I am seeing students systematically sorted out and pushed out,”
One such student who felt pushed out was Stephanie Torres, 22, of New York City, part of a fascinating panel called “Voice of a Generation: Students Speak Out.” Torres dropped out of high school because she says she felt so little support from family and teachers alike. “Now, I use newspaper articles and anything I can to educate myself,” she said, because she couldn’t afford a GED class.
Shadrack Boayke, 21, a Long Island college student originally from Liberia, told of his work at Youth Enrichment Services with students who had a similar experience as Torres.
Boayke echoed older voices from the summit as he gave an example of the power of presenting education experiences at the whole-community level:
“Instead of teaching kids the curriculum, we bring a reflection of society to kids, to let them see where they are and where they’re going” if they continue as school dropouts. “We speak to them, we relate to them. From there, we’ll bring them to activities. They see what they’re missing. They see the possibilities of staying in.”