In the New York City public school system, there are four legs that keep the table standing. There’s the students, the faculty and staff, the Department of Ed, and the parents. For decades, Parent Teacher Associations, or their offshoot Parent Associations, have been the voice of parents in the public schools. But middle class parents are at an advantage when it comes to participating in PAs. New York City tried to address that disparity by placing a paid parent coordinator in every school. But as Mike Elsen-Rooney reports, critics say the plan has backfired, and active parents at low-income schools aren’t getting the support they need.
Elsen-Rooney: Annagine Lewis is helping set up an art project for homeless families in the cafeteria at JHS 145, a middle school in one of the poorest areas of the Bronx. The room is decorated with pastel-colored balloons and markers and large sheets of paper are set out on the table. Lewis has been president of the Parent Association here since her son started at the beginning of the school year. She ran for the job after watching her oldest son struggle in school.
Lewis 1: After that experience I realized, listen, you have to get a little closer, you have to learn what’s going on in the school. And in order to do that, you have to not only call and say how’s he doing, but actually go into the building, and take part in the things going on inside.
Elsen-Rooney 2: Lewis started recruiting other parents, holding monthly meetings, and planning events. But her role changed one day in January when the city announced plans to shut down the school at the end of the year for poor performance. Suddenly, Lewis was the voice for parents fighting to keep their school open, and she took her role seriously. But it wasn’t long before she hit a roadblock.
Lewis 2: We wanted to have a march, a rally, we wanted to get the community involved, and we wanted to have a gathering at the school. And we were told that we could not. We could not discuss anything to do with the closing of the school in the school building.
Elsen-Rooney 3: Lewis and the parents needed an advocate, someone in the school to vouch for them. It was exactly the situation the Parent Coordinator role was created to address. But there was a problem. And it’s one public schools all over New York City are facing, especially low-income ones. Parent Coordinators are supposed to advocate for parents, but the school signs their paycheck. And when there’s a conflict between the two, they often have to side with their employer. Jon Moscow has been organizing parents for decades, and he sees Parent Coordinators caught in this dilemma all the time.
Moscow 1: It’s a job, in the school system, and your boss is the principal, and you do, ultimately, what the principal wants.
Elsen-Rooney 4: At wealthy schools, where parents have resources, connections and time to wage battles, fighting a school without the help of a Parent Coordinator can be a problem – but a manageable one. But at low-income schools, where parents depend on the help of a parent coordinator, not having someone who can fully take their side is a bigger problem. And there’s another issue. Often, Parent Coordinators were active members of the PA before they got hired. And for a Parent Association, losing those key figures can be damaging.
Moscow: What this does is it can take the most active person in the Parents Association and put them on the payroll.
Elsen-Rooney 5: Abigail Freeland knows that dilemma first-hand. She’s the Parent Coordinator at JHS 145, but she’s also a parent. She’s had six kids go through the middle school, and she was the president of the PA herself. She loves this school and she was as shaken up as anyone when she heard it was closing.
Freeland 1: When we found out, it was kinda devastating. Well I heard it on the news, 6, 7 o’clock on 1010 WINS, and I said what? I can’t believe it. I told my kids, you know 145 closing? They were shocked too.
Elsen-Rooney 6: So Freeland wanted to do everything she could to support the parents’ fight. But she didn’t have the same freedom as when she was on the PA. She was now an employee of the Department of Education, or the DoE.
Freeland 2: Volunteering and being a parent not in the DoE, and then when you’re a parent working with the DoE is two different things. You are for the parents but you have to remember you are still DoE. Some things you can’t say, some things you can’t do, or whatever.
Elsen-Rooney 7: And there’s another problem. Part of the goal of the Parent Coordinator position was to get low-income parents active in Parent Associations. But the metrics the city uses to evaluate Parent Coordinators measure whether they get parents to show up at meetings, not whether they’re helping the PA take action. Luna Avila works at a nonprofit that supports PAs in the Bronx, and she said she sees a lot of schools, especially low-income ones, where parents fill seats at events, but don’t do much more.
Avila 1: The biggest issue I think is that there’s no real expectation from the Parent Coordinators in doing Parent Engagement. As long as they get that signin sheet filled with a certain number of parents, it doesn’t matter what the parents get out of it, the Parent Coordinator is doing their job.
Elsen-Rooney 8: Back at JHS 145 in the Bronx, (shutting door sound) PA president Annagine Lewis and Parent Coordinator Abigail Freeland are talking about what did happen on that day when Lewis and the parents wanted to meet in the school. Freeland tells Lewis that she didn’t oppose the principal, but she did stand up for Lewis to the school.
Freeland 3: she is the PTA president, and they have a right to call a meeting and voice their opinion.
Elsen-Rooney 9: But it was an outside group – the one Luna Avila runs – that helped Lewis directly confront the principal, and eventually got her to relent, and let parents meet at the school. And that’s part of the problem with the parent coordinator position. Even someone supportive of parents as Freeland would have to cross her employer to fully back the Parents Association. And that’s a hard position to put them in.
Lewis doesn’t know where her son will end up at school next year, but she plans to stay active in the parents association. And she hopes that if she has to fight again, her parent coordinator can be an advocate in the school. But she’s not counting on it.