Union Gears Workshops Toward Parent Power

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Last week, a parent coordinator, Taneesha Crawford, wrote a post for SchoolBook about parent engagement, asking who is paying attention to parent accountability and finding ways to help parents become more involved.

"Someone is always talking, measuring, criticizing -- but not solving," she wrote.

On Monday, Gotham Schools identified one potential problem solver: the teachers' union. According to Gotham, the United Federation of Teachers began a series of workshops for parents on Saturday morning, to help provide them with skills and motivation "to advocate on behalf of their children and schools, and demand education policy changes."

About fifty parents -- ten from each borough -- packed a third-floor conference room at union headquarters for the new academy’s inaugural meeting on Saturday morning. The parents were invited to participate by borough liaisons to the union, according to Anthony Harmon, a union official who conducts parent outreach. Several veteran city activists, including Juan Pagan and Laurie Frey, mingled with self-described lobbying naifs, who took turns practicing short introductory speeches in the style of a public testimony.

The effort by the union comes as the city vows to move forward on a plan to develop a parents academy to teach parents about the school system -- something that has been discussed since 2009. Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott vowed this year that the academy would start in the 2012-13 school year, and Gotham reports that "the city is now seeking proposals from community organizations that could be involved in creating the training program, which is scheduled to begin this fall."

While the city's plan is to train parents in the high school and college application process and in ways to become involved in their child's school and schooling, the union's workshops are geared more toward activism, with titles like “Parent as Leader,” and “Parent as Lobbyist.”

Some of the parents said they signed up for the five-week-long workshop series because they wanted to feel more included in school- and district-level policy discussions that currently feel out of reach. Others said they also wanted knowledge of how to empower their children to do the same.

“Parents in our school never get involved; they just come and go,” said Iris Perez, whose child attends P.S. 14 on Staten Island. “So my solution would be getting parents more educated. I want to help parents get more involved in our school.”

Speaking of involvement, The New York Times reports on Tuesday about a program to have schoolchildren get more engaged in one of the city's more pressing environmental problems: storm runoff that triggers sewage spills into the waterways.

According to Lisa W. Foderaro, the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit group, is working with students at five schools in Queens and Brooklyn to design and construct playgrounds.

The schools, with asphalt schoolyards, were chosen, in part, for their proximity to overtaxed wastewater-treatment plants. Sites for five more playgrounds are now being scouted.

“Each child has a design notebook, and we encourage them to be landscape architects,” said Mary Alice Lee, the trust’s director of the city playgrounds program. “It’s our goal to capture one inch of rainwater.”

To educate the students, the Trust for Public Land brings its "Sewer in a Suitcase" to schools like Junior High School 157 Stephen A. Halsey in Forest Hills, Queens.

Inside the case, which was created by the nonprofit Center for Urban Pedagogy, was a model of a city street, with an apartment building, stores and pipes leading to a river.

Trust educators pour glitter and water through the pipes, to help students visualize the runoff problem.

The program has unfolded as the city and state formalized an agreement under which the city would pay for novel techniques to address its biggest water-quality challenge. In March, the city committed $2.4 billion in public and private money over 18 years to environmentally sound solutions. The approach is a departure from more traditional methods to control sewage overflow, like storage tanks and tunnels.

And congratulations to the Baccalaureate School for Global Education in Long Island City, Queens. According to The Daily News, it received the highest ranking of any city high school by U.S. News & World Report.

The school, which serves seventh- through 12th-graders, ranked No. 21 nationally out of nearly 22,000 public high schools.

The school boasts a 99% graduation rate and prepares students for a prestigious International Baccalaureate Diploma.

“It’s really a terrific school,” said Clara Hemphill of Insideschools.org at The New School. "It’s a combination of very challenging academics but also classes that are taught in a very creative way... they care about kids’ ethics and morals as well as their academic achievements.”

Congratulations also go to the student winners of the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation Renaissance Essay Contest. They received a visit from Chancellor Walcott at their awards ceremony Monday evening at the Bank of America headquarters in Manhattan.

Parents, advocates and others are convening various protests around the city on Tuesday to try to persuade city officials to restore funding for child care and afterschool programs.

At 6 p.m., Chancellor Walcott will attend the District 17 Town Hall at Middle School 2, 655 Parkside Avenue, Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn.

And also at 6 p.m., teachers, parents and students will gather at WNYC's Greene Space on Varick Street for a SchoolBook teach-in: a workshop on how to bring real-life events and tough conversations into the classroom. Entrance is free but requires a ticket. You can learn more about the topic under discussion from the Learning Network here and here.