Parent Power: Activism in Indy Schoolsby Rebecca Townsend
For Delana Ivey, being an educational activist means encouraging local schools to break free from the status quo and embrace open, democratic systems in which parents and students are valued equally with teachers and administrators.
"People talk about parent involvement, but it is still the parent being told what to do, just like a child," Ivey says. Through her work with Parent Power — a grassroots effort to engage parents and the community as agents of change within Indianapolis Public Schools —Ivey encourages people to exercise their voices, to ask questions, to realize their value.
"We are critical friends of IPS," she says. "We have children in it— my physical children that I gave birth to — and my community's children. These parents are the taxpayers; they are the people who are paying people's wages. ... In the urban or rural setting, there is a different way we'd like children to be addressed — and it is not as a deficit class and your parents as a deficit." Bottom line for Ivey: "We want humanity back in schools."
Whilerunning for school board in 2010, Josefa Beyer ran across Ivey speaking at a public meeting. Beyer recalled being struck by Ivey's emotion. "I thought 'That's why I'm running.' "
Empowerment is "heartbreaking" work, activist parents say. It entails conflict— often of the good, old-fashioned head-butting type. But the goal is to enable a constructive kind of conflict based on the various stakeholders' ability to challenge each other's actions and assertions. In study groups, Parent Power members read actual "conflict theory" as it relates to the sociology of education. They consider the ultimate purpose of education and worry that curricular change accompanying by the rise of high-stakes testing increases the factors that cause dropouts and disenfranchisement. They discuss the ultimate purpose of education and fret that critical thinking and holistic intellectual development are suffering under contemporary status quo.
Central to these discussions of educational theory and approach is the notion of critical pedagogy. In a February 2013 interview with Global Education Magazine, Henry Giroux, a leading proponent of critical pedagogy, explained it as such:
"As a political project, critical pedagogy illuminates the relationships among knowledge, authority, and power. It draws attention to questions concerning who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge, values, and skills, and it illuminates how knowledge, identities, and authority are constructed within particular sets of social relations."
One tenet Parent Power members have learned concerning critical pedagogy within local schools: Questioning authority is not a solo mission.
Ivey's educational activism took root a few years ago when she realized that many teachers at the Montessori-branded magnet school her children attended were not certified to teach the Montessori Method.
Her twin boys were placed in different classes. Ivey assumed that, because the school was advertised as a Montessori School, teachers would be using the Montessori Method, a well-established educational model that, according to the American Montessori Society website, views children as "naturally eager for knowledge and capable of initiating learning in a supportive, thoughtfully prepared learning environment." Underlying this educational approach, the AMS explains, is an appreciation for "the human spirit and the development of the whole child — physical, social, emotional, cognitive."
One of Ivey's sons landed in a classroom with a Montessori-certified teacher. He responded well — and was soon recruited into the Sidener Academy for "high ability students."
Her other son, however, was in a class with an uncertified teacher. This teacher told Ivey her son had behavior issues; the teacher suggested medication. The following year, another parent in the school, DeShawnWaiss, raised questions about a math textbook her daughter brought home.
"That's how we found out half the teachers were uncertified or weren't fully using the Montessori Method," Ivey says.
Upon questioning, the teacher told Waiss that the only difference between her Montessori classroom and any neighborhood school is she gets to choose her own books.
"Traditionally, Montessori's Method is not about books," Waiss said. She couldn't believe that a teacher who, despite the benefits of teaching at the magnet school, which included having her class capped at 25 students with the help of a teacher's assistant and another adult volunteer, "doesn't deem it necessary to do the Method."
A trip Downtown
Waiss and Ivey joined forces.
"We said, 'Let's go Downtown and figure this out,'" Ivey says.
They tracked down Billie Moore, then director of magnet and gifted programs for IPS. She affirmed the parents' concerns by visiting the school and spreading the word that IPS pays to make Montessori training available to the school's teachers and that teachers must take the certification or be re-assigned.
In the car, following their trip Downtown, Ivey and Waiss felt a rush of empowerment. Ivey remembers them saying, "That's powerful! That's what it is: We are parent power — this is power."
At that moment, the trip became the first Parent Power act.
"We were just like, 'Wow!'" Waiss says. "The fact that we came together — we didn't know what it was, but we knew the lady was sincere and something was going to happen. And we also knew that other parents hadn't gone that far with the issues they have. We could tell she didn't often get the visit she had with us."
To see Moore make sure that the appropriate changes were made within the IPS Montessori program gave Ivey and Waiss a sense of accomplishment, a justification of their resolve to stand up and do something about a situation they felt was wrong.
"I believe that's some power," Waiss said. "I believe that's the definition of it."
Moore, who has since retired from IPS, could not be reached for comment.
Parents as activists
Parent Power voices are decentralized. Ivey does not want to be in charge.
"Anyone can call a meeting," she says. If someone reaches out for help, she will help facilitate meetings and training sessions with parents and community members, but, she adds, "There's no reason I should keep all the information and be in charge — I'm not in charge."
The most important idea is that parents learn to use their voices.
"You see something that is upsetting or wrong, you have to say something," Ivey says. "Saying something and feeling powerful afterwards ... it's inspiring."
But decentralized voices do not mean voices left alone to speak without at least one supportive witness.
"If you're going to do a Parent Power act, you never do it alone because someone else needs to see it too," Ivey says.
The Montessori experience was transformative to Ivey. At the start, she didn't think to question the teachers' credentials. Afterward, she found herself empowered, angry and active.
"The rest of the year, I went to meetings. ... I'd heard kindergarteners art funding would be cut. (The meeting) ended up being about something else, but I wanted to speak about that — the horror of a parent who knows what she is getting into when she goes to a boundary school."
Boundary schools are the schools closest to a student's home; the boundary school where one of her sons moved in third grade was slated to transition to a Center For Inquiry the following year.
"I knew the pedagogy was going to be very standard," Ivey says. "I knew because in boundary schools there are more behavior problems, more worksheets and less learning."
The idea that all the teachers were in transition, likely to be replaced when the school switched to the CFI, underscored Ivey's sense of ill ease.
"People were going there and doing their best with what they got, but at a school that is test driven and where teachers don't know where they are going to be, for me, that's toxic and unsuitable for children," Ivey says. "All they've done is take away art, social studies and science —seriously — because it's not tested."
Most recently, she is hearing about silent lunchrooms in which students are not allowed to speak to each other upon penalty of losing their recess privileges.
Fellow Parent Power member Merry Juerling cringes when she hears about students denied recess during their school day. "IPS policy states you may not use recess as reward or punishment, but that's exactly what they do," she says — she's seen her son's teacher do it.
"It's a travesty that these kids sit at their desks for hours and there's not time to play — that's how they learn; that's developmentally appropriate —but that's what's not happening. My kids don't need to be in reform school, but, with all this education reform, that's what it is feeling like to many of our children."
As Ivey began to engage in policy discussion and ask questions, the scope of the task began to seem overwhelming.
"There was always work to be done — I was always in the schools, realizing that I was spending so much time in the school because I didn't trust it," Ivey says, noting an ongoing inner war with her conscience over the need to work and the need to be in the schools.
She wanted to be involved in a meaningful way with her kids' schools.
"Sometimes I feel parents feel like they just could not do that," Ivey says. She wants to see that reticence to engage erased. "You go to school because you can, it's not wrong to just go check things out," she says.
Waiss echoes that sentiment.
"I don't know if parents really understand they have to get involved in their children's education — in their children's learning environment," Waiss says. "You've got to know what's going on, you don't have to have a Ph.D., you just have to know you care about your tax dollars and, more importantly, the minds and the future of your children."
And, if parents can't always make the PTA meetings or volunteer in the classroom personally, they should send a proxy, Waiss adds.
"You do need a caring teacher, but they need parents to come in and help — or other family," she says. "Teachers need assistance. We have to do what's necessary, because the children are our future. We can't leave it all up to someone else. ... If your child is failing or not doing right, you've got to be there and know the situation."
Beyond that, Waiss says, "If your school is not able to give what your child needs, you need to get extracurricular activities that are available, for free, all over the city. There is a program at IUPUI where kids can do dissection for free — I learned about it at a PTA meeting."
The work of activism
Since 2010, when Ivey organized the first parent-led forum for IPS school board candidates, Parent Power has hosted study groups, training sessions and organized Statehouse lobbying trips and a meeting on education issues with former Gov. Mitch Daniels. Members are growing a network where parents across the city can seek support when they feel called to question authority or simply want a witness to their school-related experiences.
"If a parent has an issue, there are parents willing to be a supportive body for you," Waiss says. "Our thing is: 'When are you meeting? ... Have you met with the teacher and the principal?' I also let them know: Have another person with you. This sets a precedent that parents are concerned. We may be few, but we are there and it has to be dealt with."
Members also hold a regular breakfast meeting Friday mornings at the Near Northside's Kountry Kitchen Soul Food Place, where anyone with an interest in improving the local educational experience for kids can join the ongoing conversation.
Still, Ivey says, "It is hard to be an activist in this town. It's like they see you coming from a mile away."
The decision to take a more active role in her children's educational experience has, at times, made Ivey feel like an outsider, she says, adding "I'm just a human having an experience — just like you."
In addition to potential ostracism, parental activists also fear retaliation.
Parent Power member Nanci Lacy, who has three kids, ages 21, 19 and 12, says her 12-year-old "was falsely accused of being a bully." This was after Lacy had reported the principal for what she felt was inappropriate treatment of a child. She had heard the principal telling a student in a voice loud enough to be heard in the hallway that she was tired of supporting her family on welfare.
"The next thing I know, my son is suddenly involved in a group of bullies," Lacy says.
The school's principal gave her 24-hours notice to attend a meeting. If Lacy missed the meeting, she was told, her son would be suspended. When she arrived, the school had called in the parents of about seven boys for a group-upbraiding not limited to an incident involving Lacy's son. Together, the boys stood accused of being the bullying ringleaders for the fifth and sixth grades. Former IPS Superintendent Eugene White attended the meeting because the principal had, in past meetings, been physically threatened, Lacy says, but "Dr. White wasn't trying to hear from any of the parents."
Assigning punishments seems to Lacy to have taken a higher priority than academics. She notes she has received more notices on problems with uniform compliance than communication about missed classroom assignments.
Authoritarian retaliation techniques also include abdicating responsibility. Juerling encountered this when she told school administrators her high-functioning autistic son's writing skills where not up to grade level and that forcing him to take standardized tests was developmentally inappropriate. Juerling had just read a federal law that said a special needs student's independent education plan committee, which typically involves teachers, support staff and parents, holds the responsibility to determine assessments for students with disabilities. When Juerling said she wanted to discuss opting out of standardized testing — she felt the test was abusive because her son, who was advanced in math but grades behind in English, came home crying after a testing session — school officials informed her that they could not discuss testing.
"I was told that if I had questions," Juerling says, "I had to contact Superintendent White or Wes Bruce, the chief of assessment with the Indiana Department of Education."
Her son's IEP was eventually amended to recognize her right to excuse her son from testing and testing preparation.
Evaluating parental empowerment
Parent Power evaluates levels of parent involvement on a grid divided into four rows ranging from status quo to open democratic system. The columns list the theoretical approach associated with each row, the model by which each system tends to define parental involvement, the degree to which parents are seen as co-contributors in the educational process and the type of relationship parents and teachers typically display at each level of involvement.
"Parents have got to change their mentality about their involvement with respect to the education of their children," Waiss says.
In status quo, conformist environments, students and parents are not engaged as equals with teachers and administrators. In open democratic systems, parents and teachers are equals engaged in constructive criticism of the school system with the ultimate purpose of greater intellectual stimulation and enrichment for students.
Today, parents aren't often asked what they bring to the table, Ivey says. Instead they are handed an agenda and told not to go off topic, that they should be happy just to have a seat.
"Parents care; they do not engage because they know they will not be listened to and treated as social equals by school staff," John Harris Loflin, a retired IPS teacher and member of Parent Power, said in an email after a recent breakfast meeting of activists. "So, it is not disinterest, it is resistance."
Today's status quo is driven by high-stakes testing environments and the mantra to keep kids in school no matter what. But Ivey says, "My thing is: Why are they not turned on by school?' (Leaders) don't ask the question."
Asking the students for greater input would yield much greater results, several Parent Power members note.
"If we started to get the stories of children, it would wake us up to everything," Ivey says. "They tell you exactly everything that goes on in their school."
Beyer, the former school board candidate, is currently in the process of collecting stories of people's IPS experiences. During her candidacy, she was struck by the number of grandparents active within IPS.
"These people know something," Beyer says. "They've raised their children and their grandchildren — they know something, and no one ever asks them what they know."
As a writer, Beyer says, she loves oral histories. She tries to guide her subjects with open-ended questions, so they are free to dictate their experiences according to their individual priorities.
She asks people of all generations: "What's been important to you? When you think about school, what do you think about?" And, she says, "I've been stuck by a lot of people remembering stories about their art teachers, music and choirs and shows — I didn't bring that up — they did."
Personal accountability is also essential if parents really want to be transformative figures in the city's classrooms, Waiss is sure to emphasize.
"Always look in the mirror first and say 'Where can I make changes?'" she says. "You can't just complain. It doesn't benefit your child at all."
Ultimately, Waiss says, "regardless of public, private or charter, we just want good environments for children to learn in. I wish the politicians understood that."
Alternatives in educational offerings may, for many students, be tantamount to an inoculation against incarceration.
Bored, disenfranchised students are dropout threats. Kids who have dropped out are "3.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than those who complete high school," according to a 2011 Justice Policy Institute report.
Ivey saw this dynamic play out at Tech High School. Without the approach to education she learned during her elementary years attending Indy's Key Learning Community, she says, she would not have made it through high school.
The project-based approach she learned at Key encouraged her to ask questions about the subject matter that interested her.
"At Key School, they dealt with the multiple intelligences theory and educating the whole child," Ivey says. "One subject wasn't any more important than another."
At Tech, Ivey says, "I spent a lot of time in the media center freshman year— more than normal — doing project work. Had I not had that, I would have just dropped out — a lot of people around me did, they weren't engaged at all."
Closing the prison-to-school pipeline
Reach for Youth, a local nonprofit working to change outcomes for students facing expulsion, outlined what is at stake when considering disenfranchised students in its 2011 annual report: "(Indiana) ranks third in the nation in school expulsions, second in teen dating abuse and at the top of Midwest states for illicit drug use among teens."
The report also referenced a2008 United Way of Central Indiana Community Assessment, which found "that removing students from the school, even for a short time, is directly related to negative consequences on that child's future, including increased dropout and incarceration rates."
Moving beyond stereotypes
Ivey remembers a presentation from former IPS Superintendent White in which he brokedown IPS standardized testing performance by various sub-groups, noting that the district's performance challenges were linked to its greater population of subgroups. Commonly evaluated subgroups include divisions based on income, race/ethnicity, special needs, and English proficiency.
"No one went, 'Why do I have to be a subgroup? Why can't I be normal?' " Ivey says. "That goes back to that critical theory. I can't believe everyone just sat there and listened to the definition of subgroup and no one went, 'Why do I have to be a subgroup? What is normal?'"
She says she left the presentation feeling that people who are not white, middle class males are stuck in a subgroup, always being held to foreign standards, compared to something other.
Nanci Lacy can relate: "To hear Dr. White say 'We have to take all kinds, that's why IPS can never achieve.' We're the reason why IPS would never be anything? I was so glad to see him go. His comments offended me because they offended my autistic son, who had done everything he can each year to improve. He felt especially sold out because he started school under Dr. White in Washington Township; my kids would hug him in the Keystone Walmart — he knew my son and daughter by name."
Breaking through the labels of "broken" schools, "bad" kids and "uninvolved" parents is important to Parent Power members. Not that such concepts are foreign to Indianapolis, but because the diagnosis creates the feeling of being plagued by a foregone conclusion.
"People become their stereotypes — because, actually, they were programmed," Ivey says. "The thing we say over and over is what they think about."
What the future holds
The empowerment dialogue continues to develop in Indy and around the world.
"Delana is, like, almost 20 years younger than I am, and she is my mentor," Beyer says. "She is amazing. I love the people she has allowed to meet each other because of her and her work. It will keep happening. I see us moving forward."
Beyer sees local school councils as a way parents may see greater involvement in the future. She also predicts successful fundraising for continued study circles, fostering democratic conversation about schools — about issues parents and students determine are priorities. Ultimately, "promoting voice and collective action on behalf of children."
Ivey tries to stay as engaged as she can with Parent Power and on her own. She led a talk on yoga in the classroom at the international Alternatives in Education conference in London, and a Parent Power group will travel as the Indiana delegation to this year's conference in Colorado. Ivey is also leading youth programs exploring how to amplify the student voice. She continues to meet with Parent Power members and participate in the ongoing conversation on how to improve the system.
If schools embrace parents and students as social equals, Ivey says "you would have strong parent support — but at this point, there's not enough involvement because they're still like a 'Be a passive fan, make sure they get enough rest for a test.'
"We've got to get beyond that."