How Parents Can — And Should — Change Our Education System

By Maya Martin

When I worked in DC schools, I heard from families every day about what they wanted to see in our education system.

Every day, I heard about the challenges and obstacles that families must overcome to make sure their child has the opportunities and support needed to learn and grow.

Every day, I heard parents deservedly clamoring for excellence for each of their children.

Unfortunately, these voices are rarely heard by those in power. Decisions about our schools are often made for the people that are most deeply affected, not by or with them. While our education system has some formal avenues for parents to share their voices — two parents serve on each charter school board, parents sit on our city’s education task forces and search committees, parents are on the local school advisory teams — often, when you see who is sitting at those tables, you see the same faces, over and over again. That is what inspired me to found Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE) two years ago, to ensure that our DC education system is truly representative of the unique perspectives and needs of all our families.

At PAVE’s first Parent Policy Summit in May 2017, over 100 parents from every ward and community came together to vote on the issues they wanted to advocate for in the coming year. Their top priority: having great schools in every ward. Parents want a diversity of high-quality school options in their own communities, something we know is severely lacking in our city.

So, where do we go from here?

We move away from family engagement as an exercise to check a box and set aside the vision of the select few in power. We listen to what families from across the city want and need, with a focus on the families who have often felt the most marginalized by our system. We put our values as a progressive city into practice. Only then can we start to see true, sustainable change in our schools and in our city.

In just two short years, our parent leaders have taken bold steps to reimagine our education system and put parent voice front and center, hoping to both inspire our city leaders and create models for parent-centered processes. Two examples stand out as proof points for this work; the push for an early college high school East of the River and the Ward 8 Post.

An East of the River Early College High School

Photo of Bard Early College High School in Baltimore, image source

Our city’s lack of high-quality options is especially prevalent for families East of the River and families of high school students: less than half of the high school students who live East of the River attend public or public charter high schools East of the River. The 2,405 students who attend high school in Wards 7 and 8 represent nearly 44% of the total high school students enrolled in the lowest performing high schools in DC. Moreover, all of DC’s in-demand college preparatory high schools are located West of the River. In order for a student from Ward 7 or 8 to attend those schools, they would have to travel over an hour, limiting their ability to participate in enrichment programs or work a part-time job, and complete their homework and study. This is profoundly unacceptable, inequitable, and a monumental missed opportunity for students to attend school in their own communities.

Hearing from our parents firsthand about the geographic segregation of high-quality schools, one of PAVE’s parent leaders, Reggie Workman, a Ward 8 resident, went with Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White and his staff, to visit Bard Early College High School in Baltimore to explore early college options for DC. During this visit, they had the opportunity to talk with a group of a dozen students and learn about their experiences at school. They were incredibly impressed with how engaged, well-adjusted, and self-assured the students were. This was a diverse group of students, including those who had previously been disengaged in school, been homeschooled, or had dropped out. These students shared their stories about how they struggled, but with the support of Bard staff, were now on-track to graduate. Not only are students prepared with the skills and the support they need to succeed, but also Bard’s model allows students to graduate with an Associate’s degree — significantly reducing the financial burden of college as rising costs of tuition are a major concern for working families. Reggie’s reaction that day says it all, “I wish they had high school options like this when I was in high school!”

This is the type of opportunity every child in DC deserves, and we are hopeful that Bard Early College High School will soon be able to open a school East of the River to meet this demand.

Example 2: A Parent-Driven School Selection Process East of the River

Last year, a group of Ward 8 and military parents from diverse backgrounds met every Saturday for six months to discuss a new school model that would reflect what their unique communities wanted to see. Together, they formed the Ward 8 POST (Parent Operator Selection Team) and released a first-of-its-kind Request For Proposals (RFP) for a new school: created, designed, and written by parents. After reviewing the five responses and traveling across the country to interview the finalists, parents selected LEARN, a high-performing Chicago-area charter school network that has demonstrated a deep commitment to meaningfully engaging families from both military and non-military backgrounds in every aspect of their school model. After approval by the DC Public Charter School Board, LEARN will look to open a school in the fall of 2019. Because we deeply believe in the power of having parents as partners and leaders in the decision-making process, I will serve as LEARN’s founding Board Chair to ensure parent voices are truly driving the of type high-quality school our children deserve.

The Ward 8 (POST) Parent Operator Selection Team, left to right: Raven Willoughby (Fmr. Dir. of Community Organizing, PAVE), Angela Meyer, Ameen Beale, Ann Shealy, Reginald Workman, Catie Perkins, Sarah Baker

This work is hard — but it’s worth it!

These are just two examples of the power of parent voice. This weekend, our newest group of parent leaders will meet to begin discussing their plans for raising their voices in the coming year at our annual Parent Leaders in Education Kickoff. With upcoming education leadership transitions, this couldn’t be happening at a better time.

DC parents have expressed a ripe appetite for leaders who know and will listen to the communities they serve — and will act accordingly. We need leaders who will champion efforts to expand high quality school options in all areas of the city, especially college preparatory options and options located East of the River. We need to reimagine how we make policy decisions, and create a system where parents are leading the conversations, are partners in finding solutions, and where they themselves are setting the vision for our future — because only when we are centered in the voices of ALL of our families will we, as a city, be centered in the success of ALL of our kids.