Parents Liz Rosenberg, Kemala Karmen and Dionne Grayman organized the first Parents' Charrette which was held on Dec. 8. Here's their report on how the event went, plus next steps for the group. See a slideshow of the day's events at the bottom of the post.
Fran Huckaby, standing at the front of Battery Park City School's brightly lit auditorium, was speaking about seesaws. Her audience, parents and parent leaders from most school districts and all five boroughs, listened intently as Huckaby, an education professor at Texas Christian University, employed the playground image to illustrate the current power imbalance between parents and policy makers.
As she spoke, graphic artist May Lee, Sharpie in hand, drew on a giant piece of foam core, literally illustrating Huckaby's point: policy maker "heavies" weigh down the power seesaw, leaving parents, who have little input into decision making, dangling in the air, totally at their mercy. Sometimes, the heavies drop us suddenly. (Bam! School closure.) Other times, frustratingly, nothing at all happens, even when parents have clearly agitated for change.
Whether or not you see merit in this metaphor, you may be wondering why a Texan professor, currently studying parent activism in Chicago, wound up talking to a bunch of New York parents on a rainy Saturday morning. You may also be curious as to why we bothered mentioning what is essentially a Sharpie doodle.
The answer: With parent participation in the schools at an all-time low and the mayoral campaign looming, we assembled a diverse group of parents to grapple with the question "What might real 'parent engagement' look like under the next mayor?" The gathering was our organization's inaugural event, and, like NYCpublic.org, the website we intend to launch, functioned as a space where parents could learn together, organize around a particular topic, and take action.
We invited Huckaby, along with Lisa Donlan of the District 1 Community Education Council and Kim Sweet of Advocates for Children, to give participants some background on parent engagement. We invited Lee because our audience members had widely varying levels of experience as parent activists; graphic facilitation is believed to help an audience develop a "big picture" in common. (It's also fun to watch.) Finally, we invited the (presumed) mayoral candidates because we wanted them to listen to what parents have to say.
When the speakers wound down, we split into groups for the day's major work, a charrette. The charrette, whose roots are in architecture and urban planning, is a tightly facilitated, highly participatory brainstorming session that is focused on generating actionable solutions—in this case, ideas for improving parent engagement. Parents produced brief written and oral responses to a series of questions, gradually honing in on one idea that they would flesh out for presentation to the mayoral candidates. The charrette rooms buzzed with activity in English and Spanish as parents (and some grandparents) scribbled on post-its and clustered around White Boards scrutinizing each other's work. The atmosphere was lively, generally respectful, sometimes passionate, and definitely productive.
One group suggested creating an independent education 311 that would track concerns and provide an advocate to help parents strategize. The same group also called for a survey that would offer schools and the system real feedback—totally detached from the retributions of the progress report. And, the group suggested joint parent-teacher projects, with the idea that it would create an opportunity to talk about what needs improvement in a context where something positive—the project—was already happening.
As for the presumptive mayoral candidates, NYC Comptroller John Liu popped into a few rooms, getting a glimpse of the process and responding to a few ideas. Back in the auditorium, Tom Allon (declared Republican candidate) joined representatives who had been designated to report back to Liu, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (potential candidates on the Democratic ticket). All four discussed the ideas and their desire to learn about other proposals. Each said that parent engagement would be a key issue in the election.
We found it extremely gratifying to bring parents together for something purposely proactive. We parents are certainly not a monolithic group. (One example: some charrette participants could imagine improved parent engagement under a modified form of mayoral control, while others believed mayoral control wholly incompatible with real parent involvement.) We can learn from one another and work together, and—if this one charrette is any indication—create a slew of practical, sensible ideas. The bottom line: parents are a valuable resource; when we are ignored or undervalued, it is to the detriment of everyone in the system.
NYCpublic is compiling all ideas that emerged from the charrette into a presentation that we hope to share directly with individual candidates. For more about our organization and proposed website—we are currently seeking funding for a 2013 launch -- please visit NYCpublic.org.