#118 Jul/Aug 2001 — Schools and Communities

Challenging Failing Schools

In the 1970s, the effective schools research movement demonstrated that urban schools are not automatically doomed to fail. Researchers identified schools serving disadvantaged students that produced academic achievement comparable to […]

In the 1970s, the effective schools research movement demonstrated that urban schools are not automatically doomed to fail. Researchers identified schools serving disadvantaged students that produced academic achievement comparable to that in middle-class schools. The slogan, “All children can learn,” now an obligatory mantra for urban educators, was coined by effective schools researchers.

But those researchers also found that such effective schools were rare, often founded by mavericks who built and sustained talented and dedicated teaching staffs in the face of countervailing district and state pressures. And the achievements of these effective schools usually weren’t sustained – the pressure and the pace of working against the bureaucratic grain took their toll, the mavericks exhausted themselves, the teachers burned out.

Many urban school systems are adopting reform initiatives, from comprehensive demonstration programs to specific literacy and numeracy programs. These are often useful interventions, but most urban systems are too bureaucratic and have too many entrenched political interests for such district-led reforms to filter down to the many low-performing schools in low-income neighborhoods. Many comprehensive programs are implemented in name only because adequate resources are not provided. Specific improvement programs are often sabotaged by middle-level district administrators or all but ignored by building principals. District-initiated change efforts are often so diluted by the time they reach the school level that they cannot leverage significant improvement without strong external pressure. And poor parents in urban communities find it much harder than their suburban counterparts to hold their schools’ administrators or their school board accountable.

Foundations, national reformers, and some school district administrators are increasingly looking to community-based organizations as potential sources of pressure and accountability. These actors – community organizing groups, community development corporations (CDCs), youth service agencies, immigrant service and advocacy groups – have developed meaningful relationships with their parent and resident constituencies, and have the staff and infrastructure necessary to support and sustain school improvement organizing.

Of course, community organizations are also choosing to take on school improvement campaigns for their own reasons: good schooling is central to improving neighborhoods. Many local organizations have experienced the neighborhood flight, individual despair, and economic privation that occurs when public schools fail to serve their neighborhood’s children. Without concerted efforts to improve local public schools, neighborhoods experiencing improvement in their housing stock, business development, and overall economic conditions will still be limited by the failure of public education.

A decade ago it would have been difficult to find a CDC engaged in efforts to improve local schools. Today, national mapping projects by New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy, Research for Action, and the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform have identified almost 200 community groups throughout the country, including many CDCs, that are organizing to improve their local schools. Several large national community organizing confederations – including the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the Pacific Institute for Community Organizing (PICO), the Gamaliel Foundation, and National People’s Action (NPA) – have also begun to target failing schools for local organizing campaigns.

Much has changed in the past ten years to spur this new involvement. It is more difficult these days for CDCs and other community groups to stay out of the public education fray as conservatives escalate their efforts to replace democratic control with market forces. In New York City, for example, ACORN was at the center of recent organizing efforts against the takeover of five failing public schools by the Edison Corporation, one of the nation’s leading for-profit school-management organizations.

Many community groups were first drawn into education issues by the huge increase in local, state, federal, and foundation funding for after-school programming. Providing such programs often makes community organizations confront their local school’s ineffectiveness. Groups discover that the most successful after-school program is no antidote for a school’s failure to educate students in the traditional 9-3 timeslot. Often the program’s workers or the parents or older siblings of students in the program raise a chorus of concern that drives the program’s sponsor toward further action.

That is what happened to New Settlement Apartments (NSA), a 14-year-old CDC that has rehabilitated almost 1000 apartments for low-income, working-class and formerly homeless tenants in the Mount Eden section of the Bronx. Almost five years ago, a group of parents whose children attended NSA’s after-school program met to discuss their worries about their neighborhood school, where only 17 percent of students were reading at or above grade level. They formed the NSA Parent Action Committee and began a four-year struggle to improve the school.

NSA’s leadership helped out by hiring organizers and making meeting space available. But its most important contribution was to provide consistent and principled moral, political, and ideological support. NSA even risked losing its district contracts for after-school programs by standing with the parents. As a result of their efforts, one principal has been removed, a new reading program has been instituted, and a variety of school safety measures have been implemented.

But for all that community organizations can bring to school reform, they are not always welcomed with open arms. Such groups face several challenges as they organize to improve their local schools: They have limited access to school data and school staff. School staff often don’t recognize them as legitimate players. And it is difficult to identify who is ultimately accountable for schooling outcomes.

Every group struggling to improve its neighborhood schools faces problems of access – to data and information about the schools and to the school’s teachers and administrators. Groups need access to data about student outcomes across time to analyze the continuity of the school’s performance. They need access to data about student academic outcomes broken down by race, ethnicity, and poverty, so they can assess whether all students are getting the support they need and deserve. They need access to information about teacher certification and other teacher-quality measures to help them determine whether experienced teachers are predominantly located in the district’s most advantaged schools. Most importantly, they need physical access to failing schools so they can engage teachers and administrators in ongoing dialogues about how to improve school performance.

But too many schools and districts are so insulated and defensive about poor performance that they reflexively deny access to critical data and information. Worse, many schools limit access to classrooms and restrict opportunities for engagement with school staffs.

In the face of such restrictions, community groups employ various approaches to get data they need. Some file Freedom of Information Act requests. New York City ACORN used paired testing, a tactic developed by fair housing groups. To analyze the extent to which children of color were denied access to special programs, they sent teams of black and white parents to inquire separately about opportunities to enroll their children in gifted programs.

By contrast, Philadelphia’s Alliance Organizing Project (AOP) and Eastern Philadelphia Organizing Project (EPOP) build access by developing relationships with the school’s principal or a core of powerful teachers. These relationships allow parents from the groups to meet with teachers during the school day to get information about school instruction and organization. Ongoing access of this sort, however, rests entirely on the strength of each group’s relationship with the school staff. It’s easier to maintain these relationships when parents are not being confrontational.

Community groups that try to act as sources of external pressure often face struggles for legitimacy. In every school where community groups attempt to intervene, an officially sanctioned organization – the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) or similar parent group – already exists, supposedly representing parental concerns. School officials often try to undermine the legitimacy of new community efforts by refusing to meet with any group other than the parent association. “If you really are a group of parents who care about this school, you should join the PTA,” insurgent parents are often told. However, parent members of these groups are almost always easily co-opted by school and district administrators since they have no independent base of power, insubstantial budgets, little permanence, no staff, and no capacity to organize.

Moreover, because schools and districts are often so isolated from other networks of community groups and institutions, a CDC or other community group may find that school administrators either ignore or dismiss the group’s experience, achievements, and capacity. “Just because you’ve rehabbed some neighborhood housing doesn’t give you the right to tell me how to run my school,” one principal snapped at an organizer. “What do you know about what goes on in my classrooms?”

Most organizing groups start by building a parent/community base for school change and establishing the fledging group’s legitimacy. Some groups work with an existing community base outside the school, as NSA did with the parents of its after-school program. Other groups, like ACORN, begin by organizing door-to-door and through one-on-one meetings to build a base of parents who may never have been engaged with the school and its official parent organizations. Still others work through established neighborhood institutions such as churches and block and tenant associations, as IAF and PICO-affiliated organizations often do.

When it comes to the existing PTA, different groups take various approaches. Some work independently of the PTA but attempt to establish a collaborative relationship to prevent school administrators from pitting the two organizations against each other. AOP, EPOP, and other groups attempt to work through the sanctioned parent association – either by positioning themselves as the “issue organizing committee” or by taking it over. The majority of school reform organizations in New York City have members who participate in parent associations or school-based decision-making teams to keep informed about what the school is doing, but they do not rely on these teams to bring about change.

The products of schooling – knowledge, skills, capacity, and development – are difficult to measure. Since many factors contribute to school performance, accountability often degenerates into a blaming exercise. Teachers blame the poor preparation of students, the apathy and ignorance of parents, or the incompetence or disinterest of their principal. Principals blame the inexperience or incompetence of their teaching staffs, the unfairness or incompetence of the district staff, or the remoteness or arbitrariness of the superintendent. Superintendents blame principals, teachers, parents, and the state education department, as well as the refusal of voters or the mayor to allocate sufficient funds.

To short-circuit this chorus of blame, several organizing groups have targeted their district’s political structure. In districts such as Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago, where mayors have been given the power to appoint school boards and superintendents, City Hall is a clearly accountable target. Groups organizing in the Mississippi Delta region have targeted local school board and superintendent elections. In Tunica County, Mississippi, parent-reformers won three of five seats on their school board with the help of the Concerned Citizens for a Better Tunica County. (See profile.) In New York City, Mothers On the Move fought to remove a long-time superintendent who had ignored failing schools in their neighborhood for almost two decades. Four years after that superintendent’s departure, scores in their schools are improving.

Inside vs. Outside
Community organizing around school reform by neighborhood-based groups is still a relatively new phenomenon in most urban school districts. For groups seeking to take action, one of the first questions they face is when to use an “inside,” or cooperative strategy, and when to use an “outside” strategy that is more confrontational.

Many groups choose to work from the inside, building relationships with staff in dysfunctional schools by providing various services. They then use those relationships as a platform for organizing. AOP recently started parent-run after-school programs in five Philadelphia schools. These programs help parents look critically at homework, grading and standards and begin a dialogue with teachers about classroom instruction. AOP did extensive training with parents to prepare them, utilizing staff from the Philadelphia Education Fund and teacher volunteers from local schools.

The danger in working from the inside is that the group may find itself so deeply lodged in school-supportive relationships that it becomes exceedingly difficult to raise issues of poor school performance or develop the political leverage necessary to generate change. However, working from the outside is not risk-free either. Organizations may lock themselves into polarized or confrontational relationships that demonize the group and unite school constituencies in rigidly defensive postures.

Many youth groups organizing for change in California, for example, begin their work as school-sanctioned efforts to reduce conflicts within schools. But as groups take up their student constituents’ demands for more equitable discipline policies, or more inclusive curricula, they risk being prohibited from organizing within the school by the school’s administrators. Germantown Settlement in West Philadelphia, a multi-purpose community development, housing and youth-service agency, is trying to continue its long-term struggle to improve the neighborhood’s middle schools, but it has also adopted an extreme outside strategy: starting Germantown Settlement Charter School as a model of what’s possible.

Community-based organizations will face more such challenges as their involvement in school improvement campaigns grows. To succeed, they will need to learn from each other about the challenges they face, and the strategies that have worked.



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