Parent Power!

Sacramento Area Congregations Together

In the early 1990s, only one in 10 students in Sacramento, CA’s worst-performing elementary schools were reading at grade level. Parents and teachers were divided by what Sandy Smith, director of Sacramento Area Congregations Together (ACT), calls a “cycle of blame.” The teachers believed that the parents’ absence from school activities was proof of indifference, while the parents – often not English speakers – viewed the teachers as middle-class citizens who were oblivious to the problems of poorer communities.

To break these barriers, in 1996 ACT challenged a new superintendent to begin his tenure with personal visits to the households he served. He responded enthusiastically, conducting 20 personal visits during his first month in office. ACT proposed a program of similar visits by teachers on an on-going basis, and the superintendent embraced the idea.

Today, the home visit program operates in 36 elementary schools. Teachers visit parents twice: in August to build a relationship, and in January to assess students’ progress. The results are promising. Three out of 10 students attending home visit schools read at grade level, exceeding the rate of the rest of the district. Parents are staying active in the school community even after their children graduate, and there has been lower turnover among teachers and principals.

Starting in September, ACT’s first group of home-visited elementary school students will be entering high school. ACT has recommended that all freshman students be paired with homeroom teachers who would act as first year mentors, providing daily encouragement and feedback.

The group has found other ways to address the connection between students’ home and school life. It runs a Saturday school for both parents and children. Teachers provide tutoring in job skills, English, and computer skills to parents, many of whom are immigrants (19 languages are represented), while parents present cultural lessons to the children. Smith says the program has fostered a sense of cultural awareness that has drawn the school community together.

ACT also works at a district, city, and even state level. In 1996, ACT successfully lobbied for a requirement that all Sacramento school staff, from bus drivers to teachers, receive cultural diversity training. It pressured city schools to provide reduced-fare bus passes to students in need, and was instrumental in passing a school bond which funded wiring installation and structural improvements in extremely deteriorated classrooms. ACT lobbies on education issues at the state level as a member of a national organizing network, the Pacific Institute for Community Organization (PICO). PICO’s California Project represents 350 congregation-based organizations throughout California, and ACT has joined them in pressuring the California legislature to invest in and support educational initiatives, including a $9.2 billion bond for school repair.

ACT continues to combine these large-scale fights with local ones. In one case, it helped parents pressure their schools to provide busing for students who previously had to walk a dangerous route over a highway. Busing also allows the students additional school time. Smith believes that the buses had a social impact on the students as well. “A simple thing like a bus makes them feel like part of the school,” she says.

Concerned Citizens for a Better Tunica County

Tunica County, Mississippi, was the second poorest county in the state in 1990. The public schools were failing and the school buildings were deteriorating. Students did not have computers or adequate textbooks, and parent involvement was lacking. Although the county’s population was 76 percent African American, its schools were 96 percent African American because most of the wealthier whites sent their children to private institutions.

When casino gambling came to Tunica, many citizens hoped the new tax revenue could be used to improve the schools. The county board of supervisors chose instead to spend most of the casino proceeds on road construction. Angry citizens formed Concerned Citizens for a Better Tunica County (CCBTC) and pressured the county to redirect the money toward the needy schools. Their efforts paid off. Now each classroom has two computers, extra classrooms have been built, the physical structures of many schools have been repaired, books have been purchased, and extra staff employed.

Legalized gambling is a mixed blessing – many local residents have racked up substantial debts at the gaming tables. “The casinos were a bittersweet pill to swallow,” says Melvin Young, executive director of CCBTC. But the casinos have also brought Tunica increased attention from the media and politicians, as well as new revenues.

Gambling has affected the school district in other ways as well. In order to accommodate the influx of casino managers and their families, a new development in North Tunica was proposed in 1995, with a state-of-the-art public school to serve the homeowners’ children. The development, where houses were expected to cost $115,000, was out of reach for most African-American families in the county, for whom average annual income was $10,000. As a result, this new public school would serve mostly wealthier white children.

CCBTC saw this as a clear example of segregation and discrimination. It fought the proposed school at the local, state, and federal levels, demanding a different site that would allow black children to attend. The group garnered support from public officials, and eventually the federal Department of Justice agreed that the proposed site would promote segregation. The school was built in a racially neutral location.

Since white parents continue to send their children to private schools, the actual student population of the relocated school will be about 95 percent African American when it opens in September. But black parents are happy to be sending their children to a state-of-the-art facility outfitted with language labs, science labs, computer labs, and internet access.

Since these initial fights, CCBTC has become a political force in the Tunica schools. Starting in 1996, several CCBTC members were elected to the school board, and now Larry Brazil, CCBTC’s secretary, is the school board president. The group continues to take weekly tours of the area schools to ensure quality, and it runs a range of educational programs itself, including tutoring programs, cultural activities, educational field trips, and a youth leadership development program that connects older community members with youth. CCBTC encourages parent involvement, helping found Parent-Teacher Organizations in both the middle and high schools.

CCBTC also takes on broader political issues that affect education, including redistricting the powerful county board of supervisors. The 1990 redistricting resulted in only two black supervisors. The 2000 Census requires the county to draw new districts, and CCBTC plans to organize voters to support supervisors who demonstrate a commitment to both educational excellence and fair political representation for the black community.

Today, the need for the kind of work CCBTC is doing is stronger than ever. The Tunica schools still face serious problems. The schools were placed under state control in 1997 because of low student achievement scores. Both CCBTC and the state hope that Tunica will score better on a new set of assessment tests, allowing school control to be returned to the district where parent involvement can be stronger. Through it all, Young remains optimistic that the schools will improve thanks to the casino funding and the continued community involvement that CCBTC represents.

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