For years, central Harlem's public schools have been among the worst in the city—and parents have felt powerless to do anything about it. Now, activist parents in District 5 are organizing to demand change.

Community Education Council meetings in District 5—once sleepy, sparsely attended events—have become a forum for parents' anger over the state of their schools. "Parents realize that they have a voice," said Rashidah White, a District 5 parent and former president of CEC 5.

A majority of the newly elected District 5 CEC members, who took office in July, are vocal critics of longtime superintendent Gale Reeves. And, while their role is largely advisory, council members hope that casting light on long-standing problems will force school officials to act.

"The lack of transparency and accountability in the district continues to erode our schools and create distrust in our education community," the CEC said in a resolution passed by a vote of 6-2 at the August meeting.

The council invited parents to voice their concerns directly to the superintendent at the Aug. 13 meeting, which was attended by more than 30 parents and community members. Parents responded with a litany of complaints. 

Some lambasted Reeves for making what they considered misleading statements after the apparent suicide this spring of the principal of a popular school, the Teachers College Community School. Others complained that their children do not receive the special education services to which they are entitled to by law. Still others criticized a policy that keeps parents out of another school, PS 175, except by appointment.

A PS 36 mother said Reeves ignored her complaint about a teacher physically abusing her child. A PS 123 father said Reeves failed to address parents' complaints about a staff member who hurled insults at students and held up a middle finger at them.

Several speakers defended Reeves and the school officials under attack. One said parents—not just teachers—must take responsibility for the state of schools. Another said parent volunteers are allowed at PS 175, but must make appointments in advance.

For her part, Reeves said rules about confidentiality precluded her from being more forthcoming with parents about the death of the principal at Teachers College Community School. She didn't respond directly to every complaint, but promised to make herself available at a PS 36 Parents' Association meeting to discuss their concerns.

Under state law, the Community Education Councils must submit an annual evaluation of the superintendent to the schools chancellor. The chancellor must consult with the councils on the selection of district superintendents, who serve at the pleasure of the chancellor. Each CEC has 11 members, including nine parents elected by the Parent Associations in each district and two members appointed by the borough president.

Reeves is one of two superintendents who does not meet new qualifications outlined by Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña last year. (The other is Anita Skop of Park Slope's District 15). In her shake-up of school leadership in October, Farina said superintendents should have at least ten years of experience in schools, including at least three years as a principal. Superintendents were also required to show that they had improved the schools under their watch and listened to input from the community. Farina replaced 15 of the city's 42 superintendents. Reeves and Skop were grandfathered in because the new guidelines only applied to new hires.

Reeves, who began her career teaching at PS 191 in Crown Heights and has been a superintendent since 2005, has long been an administrator but has never served as a principal.

(Additional reporting by Mahalia Watson)