Over 100 parents and public school supporters gathered together this past Saturday at Paul Revere Elementary School in Bernal Heights, forgoing a glorious rain-free day in order to expand the effort to improve public education. Convening at the Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (PPS) 6Th Annual General Meeting, community members brainstormed, asked questions, shared organizing strategies, and absorbed information from presenters.
PPS is the San Francisco chapter of a national organization that is dedicated to supporting and improving public education through increased enrollment and increased parent participation at school sites and in decision-making about public education. A general membership meeting occurs each year to elect new board members, to set the agenda for the work for the upcoming year and to help parents get involved.
In San Francisco, a City where political activism is as widespread and varied as our restaurant options, parents look to a number of organizations and methods for bringing their opinions to the fore and making the changes the want to see in our public education system. PPS is one of several entities such as the PTA and Coleman Advocates that provide a mechanism for parents and others to meaningfully participate in supporting public education. PPS, however is the only organization actively recruiting families to public school, building a constituency of support for public education and at the same time working for improvements.
Saturday’s event had many goals, from organizational business such as board elections, to political strategizing, to education and training, to the traditional networking, and of course, to celebrating the accomplishments of the year.
Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a former SFUSD teacher and school board member (and President), addressed the group with his usual and welcomed levity. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman attended the event as well, and also addressed the group, noting that our District is now the highest performing urban District in California, as measured by standardized test scores.
Dr. Ackerman asked that we all continue to work together to not only keep this distinction, but also view it as a baseline from which to reach much further on behalf of our City’s students. This challenge was welcomed as it acknowledged the real achievement gaps that still exist in our district and the reality that many parents and educators do not feel that standardized tests are the best tools for assessing how well children are learning.
Hydra Mendoza, the outgoing Executive Director who will be leaving PPS to act as Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Education Advisor, reviewed the accomplishments of the year, including: organizing volunteer efforts to help secure the passage of Proposition H, which is providing financial support from the City for pre-school, librarians, arts and more; the presentation of five school board candidate forums, in partnership with other community-based organizations; expanded outreach work in the Bayview, Visitation Valley, and the Mission neighborhoods; providing volunteers for counseling sessions for families negotiating the placement process; school site organizing, such as increasing the number of “Free and Reduced Meal” applications at 10 schools in order to ensure that they are compared to schools with a similar demographic; and an ongoing media campaign to develop a constituency of support for public education. Chapter Founder and Associate Director Sandra Halladey made it clear to the membership, that the chapter would continue to move forward, be solution oriented and proactive.
After the organizational business, the morning was spent in an all-assembly brainstorming session with Myrna Castrejon, a PPS National Board Member, to develop an agenda and a vision of how and where members want to see the work of PPS grow. Concerns ranged from the desire for tangible improvements in school operations, to the lack of adequate funding, to the inequities in resource distribution, to the recognition of the need to continue to expand and diversify the membership of PPS in order to more effectively address the needs and interests of all of San Francisco’s families.
Board of Education (BOE) members attended the lunch break, giving members an opportunity to get to know these leaders as people, and not just as the officials behind the table at 555 Franklin St. BOE members who were recently elected each spoke, included Board President Eric Mar, Jill Wynns, Mark Sanchez and Norman Yee. Sarah Lipson, a continuing board member, was also present and made herself available to attendees.
Workshops on a variety of topics were held before and after lunch. Sessions covered topics such as more effective parent involvement; an update on the Consent Decree; funding opportunities for schools; teacher quality; an update on Federal Education budget and a listening session on No Child Left Behind; input on the Master Plan for the Arts; improving communication between the community and the Board of Education; making a healthy environment at schools.
Attendees found most workshops very useful. For instance, the overview of the Consent Decree provided an essential historical social justice context for understanding the issues concerning equity and school assignment. The session on the Federal Education Budget and No Child Left Behind resulted in a commitment to convene a larger gathering of people from a number of other community based organizations to start developing an alternative piece of legislation to No Child Left Behind (stay tuned for details on when and where that will take place).
In addition to the ongoing discussion regarding the need for full funding, two themes consistently reoccurred throughout the day in the formal workshops, the brainstorming and in the casual conversations entire day. The first theme was the need for parent involvement at all levels of education. Almost any education issue can be more effectively tackled when genuine parent participation is incorporated. This is true for such matters as evaluating schools facilities for safety; to creating and implementing district wide plans such as the Mast Plan for Arts; to federal legislation, where lawmakers from all parties and positions need to hear first-hand about the real impact of legislation such as No Child Left Behind.
The second theme was the drive to grow PPS, and the public education reform movement in general, both in numbers and in scope. The discussions on this topic really could have been discussions of organizing in any arena. The challenge for those currently involved is to meet other parents where they’re at, listening and sharing concerns, and collectively creating agendas that encompass our varied perspectives and needs.
Parents left the day with a deeper understanding about some of the central issues in our district and with some new ideas about how to effectively connect with other parents. The hope and expectation is that the drive and knowledge from Saturday will keep us going through the many challenges of building this movement. To paraphrase one parent, we’re not ashamed of our schools; we’re proud of what we’ve done with so little and know what we can do with what we’re entitled to. After Saturday’s meeting, there is even more energy out there to go after what we’ve been promised for our kids.
(Ed note: People can join PPS by going to
http://www.ppssf.org or calling 415-468-7077.)
Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and the president of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (PPS-SF).