Organizing to Effect Change
As the school reform debate intensifies, a number of low-income minority communities don’t believe business models offer solutions for all problems. For instance, the NAACP stirred controversy after joining a lawsuit filed by the United Federation of Teachers in May to stop the New York City Department of Education from closing 22 failing institutions and locating 15 charter schools in traditional school buildings. While many scratched their heads, others were in complete agreement. Among them were members of the Coalition for Educational Justice, a community-based organization made up of diverse parents, students, educators, and community residents. Concerned that the nation’s largest school system wasn’t following proper procedures nor meeting the needs of the vast majority of students (the 96% not enrolled in charter schools), CEJ supported the lawsuit. “What needs to happen in charter schools and [traditional] public schools is no different,â€ says Zakiyah Ansari, a CEJ volunteer and one of the parents who signed on to the lawsuit. “If you really want sustainable transformation and change in schools, it has to [involve the] community.â€
NAACP President and CEO Be
njamin Jealous maintained that the suit wasn’t about charters but about providing a quality education for all, as well as involving parents and community members in the decision-making process.
In light of movements such as Occupy Wall Street, grassroots activism among fed-up parents and communities is expected to grow. Says Ansari, a married mother of eight (four of whom are school-age) who works for the Alliance for Quality Education, a statewide advocacy group: “We want to be included in the conversation at the state, local, and district levels. That’s the only way change can be sustainable.â€ Ansari, who has one child in a charter school, does not oppose charters, but she’s convinced more must be done to serve traditional public school students.
She and others have been empowered by examples of communities effecting change in historically neglected school districts. For example, CEJ’s efforts led to the establishment of a success fund of nearly $30 million for middle school reform. And the Brooklyn Education Collaborative (
a precursor to the CEJ) purchasing much-needed science labs for middle and high schools in Brooklyn. AQE unites more than 230 organizations tied to parents, teachers, clergy, and others who have been able to expand pre-kindergarten projects, create school-based literacy initiatives, and avoid educational cuts as part of the state’s deficit reduction plans. Other such community organizations are becoming a force in Austin, Texas; Chicago; Los Angeles; Miami; Milwaukee, and other cities across the nation.
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