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PARENT ACTIVISM REKINDLED IN NEW ADVOCACY GROUP

Some Buffalo parents with a long history of activism, who say the school district administration's idea of parental involvement does not match theirs, have formed their own advocacy group.

More than half of the founding members of the new group were among the 11 parents who resigned en masse 15 months ago from the District Committee of Stakeholders.

The committee was created by the state to oversee site-based management in city schools, but the parents resigned because of what they called the refusal of district officials to give them a meaningful voice in school operation.

The new organization, Parents for Public Schools of Buffalo, is affiliated with the nationally based Parents for Public Schools, which was founded in 1989 and now claims more than 50 local chapters.

Many members of the group are familiar names. They include African-American, Native American, Hispanic and Anglo parents. They have been active in special education, have run for the Board of Education or have served in volunteer efforts. Ideally, they want the chapter to act as a clearinghouse of information for other parents and as an autonomous voice in the operation of individual schools.

"That's what I want to see more of -- not the 'usual suspects,' but other people coming out," said Zenna Nephew, co-chairman of the new chapter with Emilio Fuentes.

"The goal is to first of all convince parents to change their perception of what schools are -- the schools are something they have ownership of," Fuentes said.

Fuentes is a longtime member of the Olmsted site-based management team. Ms. Nephew was on the District Committee of Stakeholders during the mass resignation, and she still serves on that body, which eventually replaced those who resigned.

Charlotte Vogelsang, treasurer of Parents for Public Schools of Buffalo and a former District Committee member, would like to see the group help parents to have a stronger voice in the evaluation of principals.

"The evidence shows that working collaboration is what improves student performance," she said. "I think people underestimate parents, and I think that's sad."

LaVonne Ansari, a former District Committee member who is now secretary of Parents for Public Schools of Buffalo, said the group must reach parents in poorer neighborhoods. That may mean going to block club meetings and other community events to publicize the organization, she said.

Nationally, Parents for Public Schools chapters have gotten involved in district activities and policies by holding forums, working for the passage of school bonds, monitoring school board meetings and organizing task forces to meet regularly with the superintendent, according to information published by Parents for Public Schools on its Web site. The organization is based in Jackson, Miss.

June Simmons Barrow, the district's director of communications and community relations, was appointed by Superintendent James Harris as the administration's liaison to site-based management teams at schools. She has followed the development of Parents for Public Schools of Buffalo and knows many of its founders. "We welcome all participation by parents," she said. "I think we can all work together."

Several Parents for Public Schools of Buffalo members spoke of their autonomy as a strong draw, recalling what they called the excessive in
fluence of unions in the District Committee of Stakeholders.

"Every time we threw out an idea, we were told we can't do that because of a contract," said Valeria Aldridge, a new Parents for Public Schools of Buffalo member who had resigned from the District Committee.

Not so, said Anthony R. Palano, president of the Buffalo Council of Supervisors and Administrators. Union representation was mandated by the state regulations that created the District Committee. The disgruntled parents who left, he said, wanted "to be a second board of education."

"I welcome parent involvement," said Palano, who is also principal of School 39. "It's just that this group took on a life of its own."

Parents for Public Schools of Buffalo will have to do the same if it is to be taken seriously in a district where autonomous parents' groups have periodically come and gone. United Parents, which began in 1989, is now largely inactive, said Najeyah Sultan, a former member. Burnout set in after a decade of activism, and membership lagged as children grew up.

Ms. Sultan, who still has two children in the school system, decided to join Parents for Public Schools of Buffalo.

"That's a pretty good mix of people there," she said. "We so need to get a diverse group of people involved, especially as 65 percent of our parents are people of color."

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