Ojeda Hall (pronounced “O zsey da”) took office as director of the Department of Education’s Office of Family Engagement and Advocacy on August 2, replacing Martine Guerrier, who left to become a senior policy advisory in the mayor’s office.
Born in Baltimore, Hall moved to Fort Greene, Brooklyn at the age of nine, where she attended PS 20 and Satellite West before enrolling in Brooklyn Friends, a private school. She is a graduate of Harvard College and Drew University Theological School, and is actively involved in the Bethany Baptist Church in Jamaica, Queens as a youth pastor, mentor, and teacher.
In his press release announcing her appointment, Chancellor Klein highlighted Hall's “experience working with troubled students and their families” through her work as a youth pastor and her job as a organizer with Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, a regional affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) founded by Saul Alinsky in 1940.
This week Insideschools sat down with the new parent advocate at her office across the street from Tweed, for a wide-ranging conversation that lasted two hours. See our Q&A with her after the jump.
Q. What do you see as the primary goal of the Office of Family Engagement and Advocacy (OFEA)?
A. My hope is that we can get parents to work around larger, systemic issues, but we do recognize that most issues are local and personal and a lot of people are compelled to get involved out of their own personal groundings for things.
We’re also going to put a lot of effort into identifying other community-based and faith-based organizations that support academic achievement. Some of the traditional spaces – CECs [Community Education Councils] and PTAs -- provided for parents might not always be the best places for parents to talk about things. It takes a community to raise a school and we’re hoping to work within a partnership structure with really dynamic organizations within communities and then have listening sessions with parents who haven’t been heard from yet, like in Queens, which in the past 20 years has become an entirely different place with many new voices that don’t get heard.
Q. Engagement and Advocacy are both in your title. What role does each play in your job?
A. We may change the name of the office because over the past few weeks I’ve done over 140 face-to-face interviews with leaders -- largely with people inside the DOE -- asking them what they think we should do as the office that engages parents. What has been very clear is that this office does not have a monopoly on engagement. There’s all kinds of engagement happening and so I didn’t want to build a mission that’s uniquely about engagement because everyone’s doing it.
We want to help parents form entrepreneurial and innovative groups to get things done. And these don’t have to be permanent, fixed, never-ending parent groups. They can be ad-hoc, informal, issue-driven groups that want to do something and then take a rest, and then reorganize to do something else. My hope is to help develop leaders in academic achievement who are passionate about things – moderate people who can work with others - but we understand [they] may have some anger because they have a sense of what can be.
And that’s what organizing is about. Organizers don’t come with an agenda. Organizers come with the ability to act and get things done on issues that matter to the community.
Q. Some parents have expressed concern that you’re not a parent, like your predecessor who was billed as the “Chief Mom.”
A. I’m hoping people are willing to suspend judgment for a while. Like the old adage, it takes a village to raise a child, I have been a part of a lot of villages. I’m not going to say that I have any clue what it takes to parent a child day in and day out. But I have relevant experiences. My job as a youth minister and leader in a church has taken me to hospital bedsides and principals’ offices at schools and guidance counselors offices and, unfortunately at times to detention centers and mediations in the criminal justice system. I have a background working as an organizer with traditional public schools, such as Frederick Douglas Academy [VII] and Teachers Prep in East Brooklyn, especially around safety.
Another experience is that my mom surprised me when I was 23 years old with a younger brother. He’s 16 and the privilege and responsibility and some of the grief of being a big sister to him has given me some connection to what parents go through. We want safety for him and we set the highest expectations for him.
Q. Why haven’t parents heard much from you since you took office in August?
A. My priority when I first took the position was to figure out how this place works for parents. I can’t go out into the community and report to parents how to get answers without me knowing first. So I had a very aggressive meeting schedule the first four weeks with people mainly internally to learn this. About week four I started going to outside meetings and recently some schools and my schedule is now becoming much more external.
Q. Who do you report to at the DOE?
A. Maura Keaney, the Executive Director of External Affairs, who reports to the chancellor.
Q. How much latitude do you have to publicly disagree with Chancellor Klein or a particular decision made by the DOE?
A. I work for the DOE and I’m really clear about my identity there, so I’m not going to be public in criticizing the chancellor. But I do think we need to communicate things better and earlier and to listen better. We know where we made mistakes and I’m going to make every effort to do things better.
Q. What falls under OFEA’s authority?
A. We’ve lost a little bit of ground, though it remains to be seen if that makes us more or less efficient. We don’t oversee DFAs [District Family Advocates] – they now report to the Division of School Support. We do oversee CECs, PAs, PTAs, and have a significant role with the SLTs [School Leadership Teams]. And parent coordinators theoretically, but I’m sorting out what’s real about that...they report to principals.
Q. You helped start a charter school in Queens, the Rochdale Early Advantage Charter School, which opened this month. What role did you play?
A. This administration asked IAF [Industrial Areas Foundation] if there were opportunities to do innovative schools models in our neighborhood. The New Jerusalem Congregation, which had done a lot to support existing schools in the community, wanted another strategy too. So one Sunday morning at the church a group of UFT educators spoke up and said that we’re not leaving the UFT, but we could envision something different and given the option we’d like to work on something. So there were 18, middle class, educated, mostly African American women that had 180 years of experience among them that I worked with after school until 1 or 2 am and on weekends in the planning of the school.
Q. Can charter school parents go to OFEA if they need help, even though charter schools are independent of the Department of Education?
A. Yes. It’s a myth that every charter school is working. Many are, but the reality is that it’s a mix. There are some parents who have had frustrating experiences with charter schools. A parent came into our office and we helped her begin the process of finding a more suitable place for her child. So we’ll offer support for parents of charter schools even though charter schools don’t fall under the DOE.
Q. What kinds of specific problems has OFEA been helping parents with so far this year?
A. Parents walk in all day with problems that we try to help solve. So far we’ve been hearing a lot from parents that their child hasn’t received a placement in a school. We’ve also had some complaints about special education students having problems with busing. We have two leaders that have been working with parents and people within the DOE to coordinate solutions. We’re also staffing up now to help even more with trouble-shooting specific parent problems.
Q. How is your office planning to encourage the involvement of immigrant parents and parents of kids with special needs?
A. We have a new Chief of Staff, Keishea Allen, who has the longest tenure in this office and who has an extensive background in special education. I’ve also reached out to the Office of Immigrant Affairs for resumes. We have some positions available and we’re trying to hire new staff keeping in mind the city’s demographic shifts. I want our office to reflect the new New York City.
Q. What should parents do if they have a problem with their school and have exhausted all avenues within their school to get it solved?
A. Parents should go to their District Family Advocate. And if that doesn’t work they should absolutely call us. In fact, they can call us at any point during the process and we can go back to the parent coordinator or principal and work with them. Parents can email me at OHall3@schools.nyc.gov. Phone is not the easiest way to contact me, because I move around a lot, but my direct line is 212-374-3435.
Q. What’s your agenda for this school year?
A. We’re structuring it in three parts. We’re going to take advantage of the school structures themselves – we’re going to ask the School Leadership Teams, parent coordinators and principals to help us identify some leaders in their schools so we can invite them to some broad-based listening sessions to hear what people are saying.
We’re also going to work with the CECs. We have a really talented person, Ewel Napier, who will work on optimizing CEC structure and make sure they get better and faster information that they can relate to parents.
And the third is getting new listening sessions in the places and spaces that parents are volunteering their time – synagogues, mosques, churches, tenant and home-owner and block associations – wherever parents are and wherever leaders are that are organizing them.
I’m hoping that parents can build their case for what will help their students achieve. And when their case is made in a disciplined and organized way – not by one or two parents saying something that’s personally relevant to them, but by 100 parents -- the way we did it in the organizing field, then we’ll fight to have those things done and be real honest about what can and cannot get done.
I really hope parents give me a shot at doing that.