New Buffalo parent groups vie for School Board influence - The Buffalo News

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New Buffalo parent groups vie for School Board influence

Buffalo school officials constantly emphasize the need for more parental involvement.

But some School Board members apparently have gotten more involvement than they want from their officially-recognized parent group, which has been highly critical of district operations. They want to strip the District Parent Coordinating Council of that role and, they say, incorporate other voices to make the parental-engagement effort more “inclusive.”

The move comes as another group, the recently-created Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization, seeks more input. That organization focuses on publicizing what the Buffalo Public Schools are doing right rather than what has gone wrong, and the group’s leaders say they would like to play more of a role.

Meanwhile, a third group – an offshoot of a California parental-rights organization – also has become active in Buffalo, often in cooperation with the DPCC. Leaders of We the Parents Buffalo say they want to help parents demand better educational options for their children.

The effort to declassify the DPCC comes in the wake of its actions prompting Albany to make the district adhere to state eduction law and forcing the district’s hand when it comes to moving kids out of failing schools.

The proposal to amend the district’s parental-engagement policy also comes as a new board majority prepares to assume power July 1. The current majority – which has felt targeted by DPCC actions – is behind the proposed change, while members of the incoming majority have been supportive of the DPCC.

That raises the possibility that any change enacted before July 1 could be short-lived.

“Absolutely,” said School Board Member Jason McCarthy, part of the incoming majority. “Why are we fighting against parents all the time?”

Amid the potential upheaval, here’s a look at the three organizations:

The whistle-blower

The District Parent Coordinating Council has been the official parent organization since 2001 when the board voted to confer that status, said its president, Samuel Radford III. The impetus was a 1999 state law that said parents have to be equal decision makers.

With that official title, the DPCC has to sign off on various documents from the district, including comprehensive plans, school turnaround plans and documents related to Title I spending of federal funds, Radford said.

The purpose is to make sure that parents have a say in the decision-making process, which many DPCC members contend does not always happen. They’ve blown the whistle on the school district for shutting parents out of school improvement and grant spending plans. They’ve repeatedly sought intervention from the state – and gotten it.

The state Education Department is currently withholding $36 million in grants because of DPCC complaints that it wasn’t involved in the process of seeking that money and determining how it would be spent.

Now some School Board members want the group’s status diminished because they say it doesn’t represent all parents.

“Parents are saying that DPCC does not represent them and that other parent groups would like to be a part of the decision making besides DPCC,” said Board Member Sharon Belton-Cottman, who is pushing for the change. “And we’re entitled to have more than one parent organization.”

Seeking more input

When the recently-formed Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization started meeting last November, about 140 education stakeholders sat across from each other and wondered how they would get along.

At first it seemed like parent Roberta Cates and teacher Marsha J. Phillips would rub each other the wrong way. Then something changed, said Phillips, a Buffalo Public Schools teacher for 22 years. After they started listening more, the two women discovered they actually were more in tune than they thought. That’s when the tide changed.

“Then it occurred to us that we were saying the same thing,” said Phillips, a preschool teacher at School 43. “That’s the beauty of our group. We have so much to teach each other. We have so much to learn from one another.”

That is one of the benefits of the BPTO, supporters say. Different people with a common goal can come to the table, share information and empower each other.

The group has grown to about 200 active members representing more than 30 schools, said Co-chairman Lawrence J. Scott. Its mission is simple: to spread good news and the positive happenings in the district.

But do not count them as naive, they insist. They know the district faces significant challenges in academic performance, as well as attendance and graduation rates, said Scott, whose son will start pre-K at School 81 in September. Often the negative overshadows the good. But it is also important to counter those messages with positive ones, and it’s not fair to the children to hear only the negative things that happen in their schools, members say.

Capitalizing on those types of achievements is one of the group’s main purposes. So is increasing parent involvement and understanding of the school district’s policies and decisions. Leaders say they do not want to replace the DPCC as the official parent group, they just want to be included.

The “Believe” campaign also includes print ads, radio spots and billboards. BPTO won a $500,000 grant for the project from the National Education Association with assistance from the New York State United Teachers and the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

Despite its name, membership is not limited to parents or teachers. The idea is to get everyone concerned about the education of children involved.

“They could be mental health workers, cafeteria folk,” Mendoza said.

Providing educational and fun events, such as field trips, for Buffalo schoolchildren and their families is another priority..

BPTO will hold its next regular monthly meeting at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at East High School. Scott, Mendoza, Phillips and Cates – all co-chairs of BPTO – said they are just getting started.

A spin-off group

“There are brilliant kids all over this city,” Cates said. “If you highlight some of those things, those things will come to fruition.”

At a recent meeting of We The Parents Buffalo, one thing was on everybody’s mind.

“I’m a concerned grandparent who just wants to see our children get a better education,” said one woman whose comments were echoed by others.

This past March, the movement rolled into town as We The Parents Buffalo with a campaign called 10,000 Strong to raise parents’ awareness of their right to apply for student transfers into schools in good standing. The goal was to gather 10,000 student transfer requests for the upcoming 2014-15 school year. Organizers fell well short of the goal, as 1,200 transfer requests were submitted, down from about 2,200 for the current school year.

Two issues complicated this year’s goal of 10,000 requests, said Tom Casey, campaign manager for 10,000 Strong. For one, principals sent letters to parent asking them not to transfer their kids.

“That was huge,” Casey said.

Another deterrent was the fact that the applications were available online only, which created a barrier for the many people who do not have access to computers or are not computer literate, Casey said.

Since then, We The Parents Buffalo has been increasingly vocal and organized.

The group is planning a community meeting from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday at True Bethel Baptist Church on East Ferry Street to send a message to the State Education Department, the Buffalo Board of Education and City Hall. Parents say they will rally to demand better educational opportunities for children beginning this September.

The coalition also was behind last month’s protest and vigil at a School Board meeting, threatening an all-night sit-in – even at the risk of getting arrested – unless Superintendent Pamela C. Brown and the board members called an emergency meeting to listen to parents’ many concerns. The parents got their meeting.

We the Parents Buffalo has about 75 volunteers and anywhere from 10 to 35 people who attend the weekly meetings at 5:30 p.m. Mondays at the Rafi Green Masten Resource Center, 1423 Fillmore Ave., Casey said.

Partner organizations include the DPCC, Buffalo ReformED and the Black Men’s Think Tank.

“We welcome groups that are aligned with and support what we do: educate parents,” Casey said.


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