Public school bureaucracies are like rivers of molasses: Once they start flowing in one direction, it is messy and time consuming to change its course. But sometimes as parents, we need to band together to do just that. Last fall, Prince George’s County set its course and announced boundary changes, including one that affected my daughter and her friends. She is in the Talented and Gifted (TAG) program and had been slated to continue in that program at Kenmoor Middle School the next year. My son was in his last year at Kenmoor, so I knew the school and had a good relationship with the staff. With the boundary change, our kids would be slated to go to Walker-Mill Middle School (also a fine school, but farther away).
Several friends and I talked about fighting the boundary change. Was the drive that much longer? We had to find out. So at school opening time, I timed myself driving (at the speed limit) to each school. The trip to Walker-Mill was 18 minutes—and clogged with red lights and speed cameras. The trip to Kenmoor was 6 minutes down one road. If our kids went to Walker-Mill, it would be harder for parents to be involved, and our kids would have a longer bus ride.
I realized others in the community who also looked forward to their kids attending Kenmoor would be affected. Transportation and involvement would be even more difficult for kids who lived just north of us. I could have made a case for my daughter to go to Kenmoor Middle School and would probably have gotten her in, but I wanted other kids to have the opportunity to go to the closer school too—now and in the future.
This battle was worth fighting.
1) Collecting Data
We first collected data to support our case. School employees told us where to find information and who to contact. Most of the information we needed was on the county public school website, in board of education documents and policies and on the superintendent’s page. They also helped us find out how many kids would be affected by the boundary change. Our goal was to determine how making the change we wanted would help the school system reach its goals.
2) Gathering Support
I set up our petition on Change.org and made a short, direct appeal. Then I followed the site’s instructions to invite signers to spread the word.
I sent an e-mail to all our relevant town listservs and asked people to join us. I listed several easy ways people could participate. I included links, phone numbers and text to modify and send to school officials. Finally, I included a summary of our research. Two friends edited it.
Then I started a Facebook group, for the petition and campaign updates. I friended everyone I knew in the affected neighborhoods and added them to the group.
3) Involving Public Officials
I reached out to local organizations to strengthen our support. Cheverly Advocates for Public Schools joined the campaign and added credibility to our arguments. Prince George’s County Talented and Gifted Association (PGTAG) board members supported us. The president of the association, Joseph Kitchen, was an important voice in this campaign.
I contacted State Senator Victor Ramirez, State Delegates Jolene Ivey and Michael Summers and all the mayors and councilmembers in the effected neighborhoods. The officials signed the petition, made calls and wrote letters of support.
4) Meeting with the School System
I was surprised to get a call from the deputy superintendent and others in the office of pupil accounting. They had heard about the petition and gotten calls and e-mails from concerned people. They explained their rationale for setting the boundary as they did and told me it should stay as it was.
And indeed, they had put a lot of work into establishing equitable boundaries. But, we had not had a voice in the decision. And they did not give enough consideration to travel time and parent involvement.
Meanwhile, Delegate Ivey and Delegate Summers spoke with the superintendent, and he agreed to listen to our recommendations. We were thrilled! So I thanked the superintendent very publically on listservs and our Facebook page.
Within days, I got an e-mail from the office of pupil accounting saying that the superintendent did not have the authority to make this decision. We would have to take our case to the board of education.
Then I made an embarrassing blunder: I publically accused the superintendent of backing off of his promise–not a way to make friends with someone I will want on my side next time. And I almost scuttled the whole effort by publically campaigning against an official who was standing in the way of the boundary change.
The office of pupil accounting asked to meet with me. That was not a meeting I wanted to attend alone! So instead, Robert Braddock (a parent), Delegate Ivey, Mayor Mike Callahan (our town’s mayor), Joseph Kitchen and I met with the county school officials.
The most important outcome of the meeting was that we found out that the superintendent did indeed have the authority to make the change. Delegate Ivey spoke with him again, and he agreed to the boundary change.
5) Saying Thanks and Sorry
On the listservs and Facebook group, I thanked the public officials and listed all the ways they had helped. At the end of the campaign, I took the public officials their favorite kind of Girl Scout cookies (cheap enough not to be a bribe—and appreciated). A friend later told me that she knew that we really had a case for the boundary change when she saw all the public officials who got involved. And I also apologized to the superintendent for publically criticizing him.
This experience convinced me that together, people make change happen. Advocacy is hard. We cannot move the school system by ourselves. That is why I joined MarylandCAN. Through it, we can join forces for the good of all our schools. Remember “Swimmy” by Leo Lionni? I’m a little fish hiding from predators by myself, but we’re a great big fish when we are together.
So, let me know what you think. What has your experience taught you about how to work with public school officials?
Beth McCracken-Harness is a MarylandCAN School Reform Blogging Fellow.