Beyond the Boards

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New York City’s new school system should look gleaming to parents in Harlem’s Community School District 5. For the first time in years, the district’s chronically failing schools have an accomplished superintendent who isn’t hiding behind a desk. On September 4, basically as soon as the Justice Department authorized him to appoint superintendents without local school board approval, new Chancellor Joel Klein named Dennis Pradier to run schools across Harlem.

So far, Pradier, a former junior high school principal, has impressed. “He really made a great effort to get written notice of the last school board meeting to residents,” says Sandra Rivers, first vice-chairperson of the board and a longtime activist. “We had 150 parents, and the norm is about five.” Other community leaders report that Pradier has toured classrooms and devoted longer blocks of time to reading, a welcome move in a district where 77 percent of students fell below state and city standards in English (and 84 percent missed standards in math) in 2001.

Though they didn’t hire him, Pradier can essentially thank the school board for his job. Years of appalling corruption and ineptitude at many of the city’s district-level school boards led Mayor Giuliani and Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew in 1997 to relieve the boards of their power to appoint superintendents. District 5 was a classic case. Local activist Bruce Ellis recalls how former Superintendent Bertrand Brown squandered a million-dollar federal grant in 1996 by recruiting only five families for a district-wide family literacy program. Tales also abound of superintendents hiring friends to fill redundant jobs while students went without supplies.

In District 5, Rivers and other parents were so fed up they formed a group called Community Advocates for Excellence in Education, headed by Ellis, to pressure and eventually infiltrate the school board. Now, they and other groups like them around the city are trying to play the same galvanizing role at a time when City Hall is seeking to abolish community-based school governance.

They would seem to have an ally in Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who announced in a high-profile January speech that “parents must be equal partners in education.” As part of that, he said, his administration is asking the state legislature to allow new “parent engagement boards,” consisting solely of parents whose kids go to a particular school. He also pledged that “the entire school system, from principals up to the chancellor, will be held accountable for effectiveness in engaging parents, and responding to their needs.”

Bloomberg needs the legislature’s approval because only the state can allow City Hall to dissolve the city’s 32 school boards and assume direct power over the entire school system. The legislature created a 20-member task force, which is scheduled to submit governance recommendations on February 15, following hearings in each borough. Once the report is in, lawmakers will make a binding decision, pending Justice Department approval, on whether parent engagement boards, or anything else, will replace school boards.

But Community Advocates for Excellence in Education and other community groups around the city want a more politically powerful role for parents than the mayor or chancellor has described. They say city and state leaders are kidding themselves if they think that they can repair chronically failing schools by confining parents to an advisory position.

At the task force’s December 10 Manhattan hearing, Rivers and fellow board member Rose Marie Seabrook argued vehemently for formal parental participation in essential decisionmaking, particularly regarding school principals and their performance. “We deserve training,” Rivers testified. “Most people don’t know how to be good policymakers, but they can learn.” The panelists–including former Board of Ed member Terri Thompson, Assemblymember Roger Green, and retired AOL Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin–responded to this testimony by correcting Rivers’ data. They did not address her main point: that parents can help make policy.

Manhattan Assemblymember Steve Sanders, who chairs the Education Committee and co-chairs the task force with Thompson, is no more specific than the mayor about what, substantively, parental involvement in schools ought to consist of. Says Sanders: “If the public feels that the ability to be heard, if not always listened to, has been diminished, then I will be disappointed.”

But the parents are not alone in believing that keeping them on the sidelines would be a big loss all around. In a recent report for the Drum Major Institute, Kavitaha Mediratta and Norman Fruchter of New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy write that “in order to build relationships that overcome layers of suspicion, cynicism and despair accumulated over decades of a disconnect between schools and communities, concrete steps will need to be taken to give all parents more access, representation and power.”

Any parent in a weak district knows about the lethargy and contempt that principals can show. This fall, six parents in the Bronx asked a principal for help in parsing their students’ report card, and never got a response, in part because the principal never kept office hours. Oswald White, who lives in the Bronx’s New Settlement Apartments, testified to the state task force that principals dismissed his questions about teacher absenteeism by declaring such things beyond their control. “They shut the door on parents,” says Silky Martinez, a member of the Bronx organizing group Mothers on the Move, which is participating in a citywide consortium seeking to promote parent involvement.

In some schools, it’s not uncommon for parents who join authorized groups like parent associations to do so with the goal of finding jobs in the education system. In such an environment, parents who agitate for difficult changes can find themselves in limbo. “If a principal doesn’t welcome parents,” Carmen Maldonado-Santos of Mothers on the Move told a hearing of the legislative task force, “parents will not want to become involved, and that will hurt all schools.”


The parents’ concerns might sound alarmist. Chancellor Klein has promised to train principals, lure superb administrators to troubled districts, and override union procedures to fire egregiously poor performers. In theory, Klein’s strict oversight of principals’ performance–including measures, unspecified so far, to gauge their success in “engaging parents”–will squeeze out those who foolishly ignore parents’ efforts to help or troubleshoot. For their part, Harlem parents can complain directly to the mayor, who staked his political reputation on resuscitating public education.

And nobody can claim that the old system worked. Schools have deteriorated despite increases in funding; the city’s four-year high school graduation rate remains stuck at 50 percent, lower than it was in 1991. Against this background, rallying for parent governance might seem like a dangerously backward notion.

But the form and weight of parent governance will likely be a decisive factor in how effective Bloomberg’s reforms can be. If parents aren’t quickly satisfied that their own school’s parent engagement board has the power to influence their children’s principal for the better, the administration’s plan may fail before it even has a chance to prove itself.

Education scholars across the spectrum agree that kids tend to learn more when parents know their teachers, review their homework and generally insert themselves into the learning process. “A lot of good research says an important part of school improvement is strengthening the bond between the parent and the school,” says Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute. According to an educational program administrator who has had direct dealings with Klein, the chancellor essentially agrees: he has concluded that the healthiest mode of parent involvement stresses parents’ assisting kids with homework, understanding what goes on in the classroom and organizing to raise money for textbooks or teacher training.

That calls for sensitive communication between bureaucrats and citizens that’s inessential for most other municipal services. If your garbage goes uncollected, you’ll call a hotline and someone will solve the problem. But if your child gets out of third grade with inadequate reading skills, your child may be harder to teach in the future than your garbage will be to collect.


Uncertainty about the task force’s commitment to parent governance has spurred a group of nine community organizations, under the umbrella of the Parent Organizing Consortium, to develop its own proposal. It would convert School Leadership Teams (SLTs), which were introduced in the city elementary and middle schools in 1999, into full-fledged school-based governing bodies. (Disclosure: My wife serves as community organizer for one consortium member, Cypress Hills Advocates for Education.)

Currently, each School Leadership Team includes a principal, teachers union representative, and Parent Association president; the remaining seven to 15 members are split between parents and school employees. Teams review and approve school plans and budgets, but activists say they have often served as rubber stamps. “Parent associations and School Leadership Teams are relied upon as the primary vehicles for involvement,” Mediratta and Fruchter point out in their report, “but are ultimately ineffective because they depend on the will of administrators.”

The consortium proposal would make parents at least 51 percent of each team, improve publicity about team business and, perhaps most contentiously, give teams the power to hire and fire principals. Each parent team member would undergo mandatory training in governance.

Such ideas face stiff resistance from constituencies that would have to cede power to parents. Sources at the United Federation of Teachers worry about parents and principals ganging up on innovative or outspoken teachers. The Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union representing principals, flatly rejects the notion of answering to parents. “I’m sure there are countless parents who think [Giuliani’s 1997] changes have not been made and feel like their rights to influence hirings and firings are being ignored,” says union spokesperson Richard Relkin. “The truth is they don’t have those rights.”

Some researchers also worry that parent power to hire and fire would have ill effects. The Manhattan Institute’s Greene, who is based in Florida, worries that many schools lack the “talent base” necessary for effective governance. Joseph Viteritti, a research professor at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Policy, calls for outright restrictions on parents’ authority. Parents “should have access to information, and parent evaluations should be one of the criteria used for evaluating principals,” he says. “But in order for this to be meaningful and fair, principals should have real discretion over the running of their schools, especially with regard to personnel and budget issues.”

Lawmakers in Albany now face a political gamble. Give parents too much formal power and it will look like not much has changed. Give them too little, and parents may become vocally, even disruptively, impatient with the idea of central control.

Some activists are willing to cede the power to hire and fire. Maldonado-Santos wants most of all for the leadership team recommendation to carry weight in reviews of a principal’s job performance. Rivers, for her part, would be content to see superintendents use “comprehensive and objective evaluation processes” that they share with parents in more overt ways than Bloomberg or Klein have demanded. But she doubts that such tools will emerge promptly without the hammer of local authority. When it comes to parent governance, she says, “We do intend to fight until the end.”

Alec Appelbaum writes about business, environmental and social issues.