The building that was formerly Randall Jr. High in Washington D.C.  The school was originally constructed and designed as the Cardozo Elementary School in 1906, by the architectural firm of Marsh & Peter.

The building that was formerly Randall Jr. High in Washington D.C. The school was originally constructed and designed as the Cardozo Elementary School in 1906, by the architectural firm of Marsh & Peter.

For years, Washington D.C. has been a focal point of national debates about school reform, teacher tenure, student testing and merit pay. But many parents and community activists have struggled to have their voices heard above high profile feuds between policymakers, teachers, and administrators. We examine whether parents are being represented in decisions affecting local schools, and meet an author of a national study on innovative collaborations between parents, community organizations and school districts.


  • Mark R. Warren Associate Professor, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University; Co-Director, The Community Organizing and School Reform Project; Co-author "A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform" (Oxford University Press, 2011)
  • David Haiman Principal and Co-founder, Movement Matters
  • Alicia Rucker Community Activist, Empower DC; Parent of five current students in District of Columbia Public Schools
  • Jonathan Stith Executive Director, Youth Education Alliance

Parent and Community Involvement in Local Schools

Many parent advocates and community organizers complained that they were cut out of the decision-making process at D.C. Public Schools during the tenure of former Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Current Chancellor Kaya Henderson has pledged to increase community involvement and “refocus” DCPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement (OFPE). But many advocates have expressed frustration at recent decisions by DCPS and the administration of Mayor Vincent Gray:

Empowering Parents

Most high-performing public schools have strong partners in the community and highly engaged parents. In “A Match on Dry Grass,” Harvard researcher Mark Warren explores examples of innovative community organizations that are increasing parent capacity in traditionally low-performing schools. Warren argues that schools can serve as institutional sites that can help anchor revitalization in low-income neighborhoods.

In D.C., a number of community organizing groups are working to build capacity among parents and students, including D.C. Language Access Coalition/ Many Languages Once Voice, Empower DC, and the Youth Education Alliance.

Join the Conversation…

  • Do you have a child in a local public school system? Do you feel included in policy and decision-making processes?
  • Do you see a link between community development and school policy? Can a school thrive when the neighborhood around it is stagnating?


  • 13:06:44

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Think of the difference between parent involvement and parent engagement. It's easy enough for a public school system to involve parents. You organize a community forum, you nod earnestly as parents give you a laundry list of grievances, then you check a box to prove you consulted with the community even if only a handful of parents actually come to your forum and even if the big decisions about the direction of the school system have already been made.

  • 13:07:32

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's another thing entirely to work collaboratively with a community, to actually engage people in the decision making process as it's happening. For four years, D.C.'s public schools have been a focal point for national debates about education reform. But many parents and students especially in lower income communities say they've been cut out of those conversations.

  • 13:07:54

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis hour, we're exploring how parents and community groups can force themselves into decision making processes in our schools. And joining us to have that conversation is Jonathan Stith. He is executive director of the Youth Education Alliance. That's an organization that works with local youth to identify problems within schools and create strategies to change them. Jonathan Stith, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:18

    MR. JONATHAN STITHYou're welcome.

  • 13:08:19

    NNAMDIAlso with us is Alicia Rucker. She's a community activist with Empower D.C., a community organization parent. She's a parent of five students in the District of Columbia public schools. Is that correct, Alicia?

  • 13:08:32

    MS. ALICIA RUCKERYes, sir.

  • 13:08:33

    NNAMDIThank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:08:35

    RUCKERThank you for having me.

  • 13:08:36

    NNAMDIDavid Haiman is principal and co-founder of Movement Matters, a Washington based organization that focuses on capacity building and organizing within low income communities. David Haiman, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:48

    MR. DAVID HAIMANGlad to be here.

  • 13:08:49

    NNAMDIAnd Mark Warren is a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. He is co-author of the book "A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform." He's also the co-director of the Community Organizing and School Reform Project. That's a national survey of innovative community groups working on education reform. Mark Warren, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:09:13

    MR. MARK WARRENThank you.

  • 13:09:14

    NNAMDII'll start with you, Mark. Whenever we talk about improving our schools, the conversation almost always centers around what happens in the actual classroom, around how to attract and retain the best teachers, how to increase student performance. But schools don't exist in a vacuum. They also function as a cultural and institutional anchor within the communities. Tell us about the community organizing and school reform project.

  • 13:09:41

    WARRENSure, thanks. Well, it's a project that's set out to try to understand better how parents, young people, community residents could have a say in improving the schools in their communities, mostly low income communities. And so we looked across the country and we identified six examples in different parts of the country where community organizing efforts have proven effective at changing schools, working for better quality and equity in schools.

  • 13:10:10

    WARRENAnd I think, to your question, one of the things that we've found is that all of these organizing groups think about improving schools as part of a broader effort to improve communities. In other words, you know, the failures of our public education system are really rooted in deep problems of poverty, inequality and racism in our society. And so if you're really going to address what's going on in the school, you have to think about that as a broader effort to empower communities and to improve health, safety, housing, economic development in those communities.

  • 13:10:42

    NNAMDICan you, in fact, address what's going on in the schools without looking at what's going on in the surrounding communities? If you'd like to answer that question, call us at 800-433-8850. Do you have a child in a local public school system? Do you feel included in policy and decision making processes? 800-433-8850 or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow, email to or go to our website,, ask a question or make a comment there.

  • 13:11:09

    NNAMDIAlicia, you have entrusted five kids to the D.C. public schools. You've also lived in Ward 1, you live in Ward 7, you lived on both sides of the Anacostia River. How engaged would you say parents are in the school reform process and compare your experiences in one ward and the other?

  • 13:11:27

    RUCKERWell, parents are as engaged as they feel comfortably engaged to do so. And what I mean by that is, peoples experiences with their own children tend to imitate the experiences that they had themselves as a child growing up. So if a parent was actively involved -- their parent was actively involved in their upbringing, then the parent of the new child in the school will tend to be actively involved. And vice versa, if the parent had a negative experience growing up as a child and a negative experience in their school, then they're more than likely not going to be actively involved in their child's education, but not necessarily so.

  • 13:12:14

    NNAMDIWhat inspired you to get so involved?

  • 13:12:18

    RUCKERI feel inspired by the universe to do my best, to be my best every single day. And when my time is over, I live my life in the dash -- when my time's over, I want to be remembered as doing everything that I possibly could to make sure that each and every child is the District of Columbia enrolled in a public school or a publicly funded charter school has received everything that they can and is empowered to do their best as well.

  • 13:12:49

    NNAMDIJonathan, what do students want? Everything we're talking about ends up effecting students, most immediately, in most directly. Parents are really second line players. Tell us about the kinds of things that local teens have become involved with.

  • 13:13:04

    STITHEverything. I think for -- to answer the first question, I think young people really want a high quality education. They want an education that's going to prepare them for high school and beyond. And that has looked like a variety of different things from renovating school facilities to really some really simple bread and butter stuff. That really just seems to only really matter to students.

  • 13:13:29

    STITHThey want, like, healthy school lunches, they want facilities, you know, bathroom facilities that are clean and sanitary. They want to be able to have access to caring adults whether that's a guidance counselor, teacher or some other adult in the building. And ultimately they want the opportunity to kind of grow and develop and learn and become kind of adults.

  • 13:13:51

    NNAMDIAlicia, this July, DCPS announced it was temporarily closing three parent resource and family centers. Those centers were designed to increase parents' capacities to advocate for their children in some of the most marginalized communities in the city. Everyone agreed that those centers were underutilized, schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said they were costing the district over a $1 million a year, but you disagreed with that decision. Why?

  • 13:14:19

    RUCKERWell, first of all, when you want to have a conversation, you invite us at the beginning and not at the end. You don't already make the decision when you're asking us the question. Those -- the parent resource center model came from the community. And from my understanding, it came from a group of community members who sat down with the people who asked them to do it to craft a model that would actively engage parents on every level in order to make our school system the best. And to my knowledge, that was not followed.

  • 13:14:52

    NNAMDIWe should mention that we extended an invitation to DCPS and the Office of Parent Engagement. They said they will be joining us next Monday to discuss their parent engagement efforts, an ongoing discussion about refocusing the office. Now to you, David Haiman. Over the last four years, billions of dollars have been invested in local schools, new money from taxpayers, money leverage from non-profits, philanthropists. In a very real sense, money doesn't seem to be the problem here. Organizers often make the distinction between social capital and financial capital. What is social capital and why is it important?

  • 13:15:29

    HAIMANSocial capital can be thought of as the relationships that people bring, the skill sets, the knowledge of their community that they bring to a particular problem. And I think you're right in saying that the solution to education is not just to throw more money at the problem. In many school districts and lots of different cities you see parents and students engaged to be able to identify from, as you mentioned, their front line role in the school system. What are the things that they think need to change in order to better serve them?

  • 13:15:53

    HAIMANAnd I think that kind of social capital, really understanding the community, the relationships between students and their families, the way that teachers, school administrators and school staff treat families and students. All those things are really important pieces of the puzzle and just throwing money doesn’t solve that problem.

  • 13:16:08

    HAIMANFor example, with the parent resource centers, while there may have been a prospective from a financial analysis that they weren't affective, there is a question of what worked about them and what were their goals? And really treating it from that perspective of what are the things that we really need and engaging parents at the front end of saying what do we need to engage you fully in the school system. And looking at the parent resource centers as part of that spectrum of what needs to happen.

  • 13:16:31

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're discussing community organizing and school reform. What separates great school from mediocre or bad schools? Are parents and communities a part of that equation and if so where should they fit in, 800-433-8850? Mark Warren, perhaps the best known and most innovative group you profile in book, a match on dry grass, is called the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago. It's a community group that works with projects outside of schools. It's worked with low income communities, especially immigrant communities to help adults be better advocates for their kids. Tell us a little bit about this Chicago example and how it works.

  • 13:17:14

    WARRENSure. I think that the Chicago example is a great example of how you can really develop broad and deep and meaningful participation by parents in their local schools. This is a group that set out to approach parents, mostly mothers, mostly Latino women who were mothers of children in their elementary schools, which by the way, are mostly low income. Almost all free, reduced price lunch.

  • 13:17:45

    WARRENAnd instead of -- I think the typical approach, which is to think that, you know, we're going to just have the school try to involve the individual parent around their own child, they set out to develop a social support system and to approach parents as members of a community that's connected to each other. And they brought parents into schools through collaborations with principals to do the real work of schools and build relationships with teachers. So they have something called The Parent Mentor Program that they started and 150 parents go through it every year. They've had over 1,500 parents go through it over the last 10 years.

  • 13:18:17

    WARRENAnd parents come in and they work in the classroom for two hours a day supporting teachers. And they get a stipend for that work. But then on Friday, they meet together as a group so that they can support each other, develop personal goals like getting a GED or maybe even go into college if they've already got a high school degree, learning English. And they have leadership development activities.

  • 13:18:38

    WARRENWhat does it mean to be a leader in your community? What skills do you need to know? How do you run a meeting? How do you write a proposal? How do you hold house meetings and connect with other parents? So they approach parents as leaders of their schools not as people who are a bundle of problems that we have to help but as people who can be empowered leaders. As a result, the parent mentors that go through that, they then develop and play a leadership role in the school. They've started community learning centers, they start a home visit programs.

  • 13:19:06

    WARRENThey're active in the community around affordable housing. And this gets back to that issue you started off earlier with. How can schools be vital institutions in our communities? Well, one of the ways they can be as centers for civic engagement and community life and that they can draw around them parents and families, help develop them as leaders and then engage their social capital and their capacities to improve schools and improve neighborhoods together.

  • 13:19:33

    NNAMDII was going to ask about how social capital is used in D.C. public schools. But I think Ieesay (sp?) in Washington, D.C. has a more direct way of asking that question. Ieesay, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:19:46

    IEESAYYes, good afternoon, brother Kojo and to the whole WAMU family. This is a great show, Kojo. You know how to pick folk because, man, the folks you have representing organizations, YEA and Empower D.C. and brother David are doing great work in D.C. so I applaud you all. My question is, you know, I represent (sounds like) Mommies DOC a small community based out-of-school town program. And my question is, what is the role of small community based organizations in helping to advance educational achievement for all children?

  • 13:20:21

    IEESAYAnd then my second question is, what tangible, one, two, three things, can community-based organizations do to help push the envelope? So, maybe we, you know, get Empower D.C. and YEA to push, you know, Kaya Henderson to maybe let's do that kind of mentor model here in D.C. So what can we do and, you know, we got a lot of social capitalists, CBOs, how do we use it? That's my question.

  • 13:20:44

    NNAMDII'll ask each of our panelists, Alicia, starting with you to respond to Ieesay's question.

  • 13:20:49

    RUCKERWell, thank you. Greetings, Ieesay. First of all, community organizations can do -- the first thing that we need to do is we need to really urge President Obama to pass the financial transaction tax on Wall Street. We need to tax Wall Street because in part of that financial transaction tax, that will add $350 billion into our economy. Part of that money will be used for schools, even though people say we don't need money, we need to use it in a different way. That's number one.

  • 13:21:24

    RUCKERNumber two, we do need to engage. We have a program similar to that Parents as Partner program here in Washington, D.C. The third thing that we can do is we can have here in Washington, D.C. a mother's tax or a mother's abatement where mothers who, like Dr. Warren was saying, who are in the schools are offered a stipend to help do that, work in schools that's not being done.

  • 13:21:48

    RUCKERWe have many children here in Washington, D.C. who are already behind the eight ball. You cannot have one teacher in a classroom with 25 to 30 children who are already behind the eight ball. You need to have a second adult in that classroom to help offset what the other children are doing, because if one child is disruptive, it could genius...

  • 13:22:10

    NNAMDIAnd you're suggesting that's where community organizations can come in?

  • 13:22:13

    RUCKERI'm demanding, I'm not suggesting at this point. I'm into action at this point.

  • 13:22:17

    NNAMDIYeah, I didn't expect the Occupy Wall Street movement to get involved in this conversation here. But apparently it did, because your first demand is that Wall Street be forced to pony up more money.

  • 13:22:29

    RUCKERAnd that's actually from National Nurses United because on our agenda is quality public education. So, we need President Obama to really pass the financial transaction tax.

  • 13:22:41

    NNAMDIAnd onto you, David Haiman, responses to the questions on the phone.

  • 13:22:46

    HAIMANAbsolutely, and great to hear from you, Ieesay. I think one of the really critical pieces that community organizations can play is to be a real focal point for engaging parents and students. Even if you're not a straight up community organizing group, to provide training opportunities for conversation and just consciousness-raising around education issues. Again, many times parents feel isolated and alienated from their schools whether it's because, as Alicia said earlier about personal experiences or because they haven't found a welcoming environment at their children's school when they try and drop them off every day.

  • 13:23:16

    HAIMANAnd so I think that really change happens not from individual parents but from parents working collectively. And as Ieesay mentioned that organizations like Mommies are places where that collectivity can happen. And where there is social capital to bring parents together, just start to think as a group about what's going on and then potentially plug in to organizing efforts that are happening. So, I think it's a vital role for them to play.

  • 13:23:36

    NNAMDIJonathan, I'm going to add Alexa's phone call before I give you a chance to respond. Alexa in Annandale, VA. Go ahead, please. You're on the air.

  • 13:23:45

    ALEXAHi. Thank you for having on the show. I am a teacher and this conversation comes up at a timely moment for us. We were just having parent-teacher conferences and we have so many parents not show up. And that can be really disappointing as teachers who -- I know these teachers have made every effort to go to these homes or invite parents to go to school at accommodating time. So, I just wanted to -- you talked a little bit about intensive programs to get parents involved in their school. And I just wanted to say, you know, teachers are behind this. They've got a lot on their plate and an idea like Mommies and Me ideas are great.

  • 13:24:27

    NNAMDIWell, I'm going to turn to Mark Warren first before I come back to Jonathan because Jonathan deals more with the young people themselves. How do you get parents -- what incentives are there?

  • 13:24:35

    WARRENSure. Let me say that I think that we are facing a dominant paradigm in the thinking of educators in a lot of low-income communities, which is that parents don't care about education. And I think that we even titled this book, "A Match on Dry Grass" to kind of flip that paradigm and to say, you know, actually there's a widespread concern out there, that parents do care deeply. Every survey that's ever been done shows that.

  • 13:25:00

    WARRENAnd that if you -- once you go out and you try to actually engage people in real relationships and real conversations, it is like throwing a match on dry grass in terms of the response that you get. And I think we're dealing with -- I appreciate the caller and I know that a lot of teachers do care about this, we're dealing with a history where schools and many communities have been really disconnected from parents and communities. And that history is real.

  • 13:25:25

    WARRENAnd so then when a parent who, I think Alicia was referring to this earlier too, who may not have had a very good experience in school herself gets a leaflet or a message that there's a PTA meeting, there's no real connection there. I'm a sociologist and there is widespread research on this. The number one reason that a person, any person not just a parent, any person attends an event, a meeting, an action is because someone they personally know asked them, not because they got a leaflet, not because they saw a poster up.

  • 13:25:55

    WARRENAnd so, I think we're dealing with a situation where parents don't have the relationships with teachers in the schools. And therefore, sending leaflets home or email messages doesn't produce the result. And instead, I think, that community based organizations, for example, who have connections with parents and with young people can serve in a way as mediators and bridge builders with teachers who do care about this work but don't have those kinds of relationships.

  • 13:26:19

    WARRENAnd even though I was talking about a parent-mentor program, it's a program but it's a program that's really about building relationships and leadership. It's about bringing parents into classrooms where they get to know teachers and teachers get to know them. We can't just have projects and meetings all the time. We have to focus on how do we build relationships, where people learn how to work together?

  • 13:26:39

    NNAMDIJonathan, does YEA, the Youth Education Alliance, have the kinds of programs in which young people can encourage their own parents to get more engaged with their schools?

  • 13:26:50

    STITHNot really. I think that is probably one of the things about being kind of youth, you don't necessarily want your parent involved and stuff. Ironically, though, I am a parent of a D.C. public high school student. And so, I can really -- I'm kind of going back to Ieesay's question. I think the two other points were really made. I think the other thing that CBOs can do, really share practices. One of the things that Mommies is really good at is a center of kind of social and education innovation and how they begin to take kind of what's happening in an after-school setting and then begin to work to embed that in education and makes that -- kind of pushes the envelope in terms of education.

  • 13:27:27

    STITHAnd I can't agree with your point even more. Like, I get robo calls all the time from schools. And it doesn't. And it, you know, I don't -- you know, it's just a recording and most of the time I send it right to voicemail and I check it out later. So, there is a -- there needs to be an investment in terms of creating personal relationships between parents and schools. And even -- I went to my daughter's parent-teacher conference and I only had 10 minutes.

  • 13:27:55


  • 13:27:56

    STITHAnd that wasn't enough time to really build a relationship. And, you know, it was very cut and dry and very professional. And so, you know, I walked away not necessarily feeling any closer akin to the school that she attends.

  • 13:28:06

    NNAMDIInvolvement not engagement. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on community organizing and school reform. You can call us right now, 800-433-8850. Can a school thrive when the neighborhood around it is stagnating? 800-433-8850 or send email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:30:29

    NNAMDIWe're having a conversation on school reform and community organizing with Alicia Rucker, community activist with Empower D.C., which is a community organization. She's a parent five students in District of Columbia public schools. David Haiman is principal and co-founder of Movement Matters, Washington-based organization that focuses on capacity building and organizing within low income communities.

  • 13:30:51

    NNAMDIJonathan Stith is executive director of the Youth Education Alliance, which works with local youth to identify problems within schools and create strategies to change them. And Mark R. Warren is a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. He's co-author of the book "A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing As a Catalyst for School Reform." He's also the co-director of the Community Organizing and School Reform Project, a national survey of innovative community groups working on education reform.

  • 13:31:21

    NNAMDILocal activists are preparing for a fight they see coming around the bend. This past August, Deputy Mayor for Education De'Shawn Wright contracted with an Illinois based firm with strong ties to the charter school movement to conduct a study of the entire school system. The study will apparently analyze whether D.C.'s neighborhoods are being adequately served by existing schools. And it's expected to serve as the basis for possible school closures next year. What concerns do you have about this, Alicia?

  • 13:31:53

    RUCKERWell, the biggest concern that I have is that whoever made the decision at our district government did not look further into the IFF. And it's to my understanding that the work that was done in Chicago was all thrown out. And a local D.C. group, 21st Century school fund had to come in and clean all that work up. So when we start...

  • 13:32:15

    NNAMDIThe IFF being the Illinois-based group that's going to conduct the study.

  • 13:32:17

    RUCKERYes, sir, that's correct. We need to start tapping the local talent that we have right here in Washington, D.C. proper. We're ready, willing and able to take on the cause of making sure our school system is second to none.

  • 13:32:32

    NNAMDIWhere do charters fit into this in your view, David, Mark?

  • 13:32:36

    HAIMANWell, I would say, first of all, I agree with what Alicia said and also recognize the part of the problem is again decisions, major decisions being made in the school system without engaging parents and families. So, I believe it was in Denver where there were some issues around school closings, school resources. And actually the community was brought into the process to create a plan that wasn't Pollyannaish and recognize that some schools might have to close and that some schools weren't serving their communities well.

  • 13:32:59

    HAIMANWhat really brought the community into the conversation to help in the decision making, not after the decisions had been made. And I think especially D.C., to get to your question about charter schools, this happens a lot in D.C., more from the decisions coming from the national level, where people sort of like to sort of pass pilot legislation for the district. And I think charter schools, as part of a public school system, where, you know, they can experiment and potentially have practices that get integrated back into traditional public schools are a potential model to look at. But, again, those decisions need to be made more at the community level not brought in from the outside.

  • 13:33:33

    NNAMDIMark Warren, charter schools?

  • 13:33:35

    WARRENYeah. I mean, I would agree with the last comments, David's thought that, you know, a lot of the organizing groups that we study, you know, are sometimes frustrated with the slow pace of change within districts. Sometimes interested in charter schools as a place where you can create a maybe smaller school that can be connected more closely with the community. But at the same time, I think we're facing this sort of wholesale, more corporate approach to charter schools.

  • 13:34:03

    WARRENAnd think that part of the problem is that we seem to be very easy to move from one silver bullet reform to another. Well, it's going to be -- first it's going to be high stakes testing, then it's going to be charter schools, then it's going to be something else. And I think what we've found is that whatever these reforms are, they're really not going to matter to create really good schools in low income communities without building the kinds of collaborations, the kinds of social capital, the kinds of participation we're talking about.

  • 13:34:30

    WARRENBecause from the point of view of teachers, you know, so many teachers sit in schools and say, well, here's another new idea. We'll wait three years until the next superintendent comes in with another new idea. There's no theory of change about how do you really engage people so that they have a say in the changes that are going to occur. Therefore, they're going to own it and care about it and want to invest their time and energy to make it happen, as opposed to feeling it's been imposed on them.

  • 13:34:57

    NNAMDIJonathan -- go ahead please.

  • 13:34:59

    WARRENNo, either we're going to sit it out or actively resist it. And I think that's what the organizing idea is about engaging people, not just parents, not just young people, teachers too need to be engaged in the process of creating change.

  • 13:35:09

    NNAMDIWell, Jonathan, you have a daughter in public school. Does it make a difference to young people whether its public should, charter schools? Because in the final analysis the charter school systems are paid for with public school money, so to speak.

  • 13:35:21

    STITHThey went to a charter school -- well, my daughter went to a charter school before she went to D.C. public high school. And so, it doesn't quite -- it doesn't make a difference in her experience. I do think it makes a difference for young people who struggle. And so, a lot of young people's story is that they went to a charter school seeking to get a different educational experience and got one very similar to a public school, where they were ultimately pushed out and eventually sent back to their neighborhood school. And I think that's one of the fundamental experiences that young people are having with charter schools in the district. And not feeling the commitment to kind of educate them at all cost and by any means.

  • 13:36:00

    NNAMDIHere's Jeff in Washington, D.C. Jeff, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 13:36:04

    JEFFHi, Kojo, thanks for taking my call. I'm Jeff Carter. I'm the president and director of D.C. Learns, which is the city's literacy coalition. And I was -- as I was listening to this conversation I was thinking about the fact that the latest estimate here in the district is that nearly one in five adults may have less than basic literacy skills. So, my question is it -- do you find that low literacy presents a barrier for many parents who would like to be more involved but feel that they would lack the capacity and skills to do so? And I'm also wondering about the parent resource centers as a potential resource, or a place where parents, adult literacy needs could be addressed.

  • 13:36:45

    NNAMDII think I'd like to broaden the literacy question for a second here unless somebody wants to speak about that specifically. Alicia, of course.

  • 13:36:53

    RUCKERThank you, Kojo. I believe that the illiteracy in Washington, D.C. for adults is closer to 40 percent.

  • 13:37:00

    NNAMDIThat's what I thought, about 39 percent. Yeah.

  • 13:37:01

    RUCKERYeah, four-zero. So when we look at illiteracy, if we also want to equate that to health illiteracy, if you can't read period, then if you go to the doctor and you have a medical problem, what makes anybody think that that's going to help anyone? We need to attack the problem where it lies. And we can attack the adult illiteracy rate. But right now, we have an opportunity to shape these little minds. And we can do that with highly effective teachers in the classroom.

  • 13:37:31

    NNAMDII wanted to broaden that in this way. And David and Mark and Jonathan, you can respond in whatever way you choose because it seems like a kind of chicken, egg question. We know that most high performing schools are built on a strong community network. They have parents and students who are highly engaged and feel empowered to participate in big decisions affecting the schools. We also know that the opposite is true. Our worst performing schools, often in urban areas, suffer from low parent engagement and low parent capacity. First you, David.

  • 13:37:59

    HAIMANI wanted to also add, in addition to literacy, is the issue around language access in this city, in certain parts of this city. So, it's not just that parents may or may not have high literacy levels but also whether or not the school creates an environment in which the language that they speak is one in which they can engage with the school. And, again, I think that both of these issues will have an impact on the child's education. And it's not just that a parent with low literacy can't get involved in their child's education.

  • 13:38:23

    HAIMANBut that might look different than what high literacy parent might -- how they might get involved. And that might mean that the school needs to provide some assistance in terms of brokering a relationship with the teacher so that parents can really understand what is going on in the classroom and how can I support my child at home even if I can't sit down and do the homework with them in the way that another parent might be able to.

  • 13:38:41

    HAIMANAnd so, again, I think that those are particular challenges. And the last thing is regardless of I think the parents literacy level, there is again, as Mark mentioned, a strong desire for their child's education to be good. And that political will can definitely be harnessed regardless of the literacy level of the parent.

  • 13:38:56

    NNAMDIMark, is there any one key to turning around failing schools? Is it improving teacher performance or increasing neighborhood involvement? California and a number of states have something called a trigger law that supporters say should serve to empower parents as true stakeholders, the idea being that if parents in a failing school district collect enough signatures from a petition, they can force a referendum on the school. If a block of parents exceeds 50 percent of a vote, they can force the school to either fire staff, convert to charter to shutdown. It's a law that's been very controversial. Care to comment?

  • 13:39:33

    WARRENSure. First of all, I don't think that there is one key to improving schools or transforming schools. And I think that that way of thinking about it, that there has to be one silver bullet, one key thing, I think is part of the problem that we're facing. I am a very strong advocate for really strong forms of parent and community engagement in schools. I think it is one of the essential ingredients, but I wouldn't say it's the only think that needs to happen.

  • 13:39:58

    WARRENWe need good, high-quality teachers. We need strong instructional leadership. We need financial capacity. I mean, I don't know the situation in Washington but in many of our schools in low-income communities, there is a desperate need for greater resources. There are crumbling buildings and inadequate test books and other things. So I think all of these things are necessary, and we have to start thinking holistically rather than about one thing. Now, on the Parent Trigger Law, I think that it's an important step forward that parents really do need a degree of power and say in what happens in their schools, and I think that the Trigger Law can provide that.

  • 13:40:35

    WARRENHowever, I think that the findings from our study that we have in the book "A Match on Dry Grass" really says that it's not about changing schools today, it's about a long-term sustained engagement and building the resources to change schools. And so, while I think the Parent Trigger Law is a step forward, it's only gonna work if parents then have the opportunity to develop their capacity in whatever way it is to learn about the education systems, to understand how to organize in their communities, and to be involved in the long run.

  • 13:41:03

    WARRENI mean, those -- the cases that we have in Chicago, in Denver, and in L.A., we're trying to say this can happen. It is happening in various communities, but it's not a silver bullet one thing is going to change everything overnight. It's about building -- investing and building this capacity over time. So I know the Parent Trigger Law has been controversial. I would say it's a good step forward. Let our laws recognize that parents should have power and a say in schools, but then let us then go take the next step forward and create a meaningful role for parents in the day-to-day work and transformation of schools.

  • 13:41:36

    NNAMDIGotta take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about community organizing and school reform. If you have already called, stay on the line, we will get to your call. If the lines are busy, shoot us an email to, a tweet @kojoshow, or go to our website Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:43:56

    NNAMDIBack to our conversation on school reform and community organizations. We're talking with David Haiman, principal and co-founder of Movement Matters which is a Washington-based organization focusing on capacity building and organizing within low-income communities. Jonathan Stith is executive director of the Youth Education Alliance which works with local youth to identify problems within schools and creates strategies to change them. Mark Warren is a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. He is a co-author of the book "A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform."

  • 13:44:31

    NNAMDIAnd Alicia Rucker is a community activist with Empower D.C., which is a local community organization. She's also a parent of five students in the District of Columbia public schools. I'd like to talk about governance and democracy. Over the last four years we've heard a lot of complaints about how undemocratic the decision making has been, how parents find themselves being forced to react to policy decisions as opposed to being directly consulted.

  • 13:44:58

    NNAMDIBut before the mayoral take over, the city had a more democratic system, and in the eyes of many it became dysfunctional with objections to everything. People say, well, maybe part of the reason D.C. public schools has been able to able to institute changes and experiment is because they did it without asking for permission. And without asking for a buy-in for every decision that they made. What do you think, Alicia?

  • 13:45:23

    RUCKERWow, that's a loaded question. Well...

  • 13:45:25

    NNAMDIIntended to be.

  • 13:45:28

    RUCKERI believe that of the people, by the people, and for the people needs to come from within. So when everyone takes the responsibility upon themselves to make sure that our community works, then our community will work. I'm not gonna place blame on anybody, because it starts with me, and if everyone looks in the mirror and evaluates what they've done to move their government forward, then our government may be more of the people, by the people, and for the people.

  • 13:46:00

    NNAMDIDavid, Jonathan, do you think the previous system we had in the District of Columbia became too dysfunctional?

  • 13:46:06

    STITHIt definitely had its flaws, but looking at where we -- where we sit now, I think that the new space has definitely served to drown out the voices of young people. When there was a Board of Education, young people were engaged. YEA had several -- was able to get several policies passed around bathroom conditions in D.C. public high schools, also improving school lunches, and even our biggest campaign victory, the School Modernization Act kind of came out of this Board of -- having a Board of Education.

  • 13:46:36

    STITHI think you can't really talk about the context in D.C. and the Board of Education without talking about the relationship of the City Council, and that -- it was one of being antagonistic where there wasn't really a cooperative relationship between the Board of Ed and the City Council. And so even now with -- there's even, I feel, a greater confusion now in the system because everyone -- no one knows anything, and no one's responsible for anything. And at the end of the day, it all comes back to one person, the Chancellor, but she doesn't make the decision. So it's a really confusing system.

  • 13:47:15

    NNAMDIDavid Haiman, with almost every decision made by DCPS, the systems holds a quote/unquote "parent outreach event." But in speaking with local activists, we here a similar complaint, that the officials in the school system apparently listen but they don't really hear.

  • 13:47:31

    HAIMANMm-hmm. There's definitely a big difference between as you mentioned earlier, parent -- I wouldn't even necessarily call it involvement, but just parent education, or letting parents know what's happening versus engaging parents in the process of what's happening, and that is a huge difference, and I think you're 100 percent right. That often what happens, not just in the education system, but with a large number of the -- just public meetings in general around development, around neighborhood planning, there's a sense amongst community members that they go to a meeting to hear what's already been decided, and any comments that they made will be integrated into an already established plan.

  • 13:48:04

    HAIMANAnd I think again, when you take away democratic processes like a Board of Education, look at mayoral and chancelloral control, if that's a word, that what you really have is a system in which parents feel even more so that there's no point in getting engaged because they're going to be told what's going on, not being asked.

  • 13:48:21

    NNAMDIMark Warren, one of the groups you study is called People Acting Together in San Jose. This group operates in a poor Latino community called Alum Rock. Is this -- can this be a model for parent involvement to begin to take over a failing school system? How is that -- how does that work?

  • 13:48:39

    WARRENYes. And let me say that -- just to tie to the last question, you know, democracy is messy. It is messy. But it's hard to celebrate democracy on the streets of Egypt and not want to try to make it work in our communities right here. That's not to defend, you know, systems that aren't working well, but it's to say, well, how can we create better democratic systems. And I think that that's part of what the groups that we study, including the group in San Jose, that goes by PACT as an acronym, the PACT group is trying to do.

  • 13:49:09

    WARRENAnd it's saying, you know, our schools -- we've gone out in our communities, we've talked with parents, people feel the schools are large, impersonal institutions, disconnected, with teachers who may be well-meaning, but come from suburban areas that don't understand our children and our families and our culture. We want the opportunity to create some new schools that are smaller that would have a chance that parents can work along with teachers and principals to vision -- a visioning process.

  • 13:49:39

    WARRENWhat really do we want for the education of our children? I feel like that kind of question almost never is asked anymore. How can a school -- and these are schools that I think are taking very seriously the idea that we are nurturing a new generation of community leaders, of democratic citizens. It's not just about whether kids can pass a test score -- a test. As important as that is, there's more to what public education is supposed to be doing.

  • 13:50:03

    WARRENSo they've created now a network of small schools, including a couple of charter schools, but mainly in-district schools that were designed by teams of parents, teachers, and principals together, using some expert advice, and, you know have developed very high-quality education. Some of these schools have some of the highest test scores, but they're also places -- for example, one of the schools goes by the name Lucia. They refer to all the children at the school as Lucia leaders, and it really sets a different kind of paradigm to how teachers think about what they're responsibilities are.

  • 13:50:33

    WARRENThey start the day, every day, with a launch outside of their school. It's a neighborhood school. It's in California so it's warm, so they can do it during the winter. And all parents, teachers, young people, grandparents, whoever is the neighborhood comes and talks -- and celebrates the school with activities in the morning, and chants and cheers, and they talk about a few things, and then they, you know, and then the teachers bring their children into the school, and it's a way to kind of institutionalize the idea that these are schools that are really here to work with communities and to involve -- to engage people.

  • 13:51:03

    WARRENThey don't even say the school involves parents. They say the parents organize activities to engage themselves in the schools. And the parents aren't here to support teachers, the teachers are here to support parents, who after all, are our children's first teachers.

  • 13:51:15

    NNAMDIHere is Kim in Washington D.C. Kim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:51:20

    KIMHi, Kojo. Hello to the entire panel. We have really been enjoying listening to your discussions. I wanted to comment on a couple of things. One, I just heard someone say that we always basically included as parents and community members after the fact, where it's like a don't ask just tell policy being given to us on what we must accept from the government or DC public schools in the way of what should happen with parents -- parent resource centers and the like.

  • 13:51:54

    KIMAs a matter of fact, just recently there were a week of different people, I think David could comment about this, where different people from various wards gave several comments about the process that the D.C. public schools was using to engage parents. This process included parents sitting down and having brainstorming sessions on an RP recommendation that they really don't even agree with having. A lot of the parents want parent resource centers to be reopened, and they want the services now. That was commented on several occasions, and particularly in wards one and four where the Hispanic population had already an ESL program in their PRC center.

  • 13:52:40

    KIMThere were already effective programs happening before they were temporarily closed, and the other types of programs I heard you all mention about engagement and actually teaching parents how to advocate, all of that was happening when those professional persons like Ms. Ebony Rose...

  • 13:52:56

    NNAMDIGot to tell you, Kim, we'll be talking with the Office of Parent Engagement next week, Monday. But Alicia...

  • 13:53:03

    KIMOh, really?

  • 13:53:04

    NNAMDI...what is your under -- yes. Alicia, what is your understanding of what's going on that with office right now?

  • 13:53:09

    RUCKERWell, my understanding is that that office is in transition. But like the caller, Kim, was saying, first of all, we have to recognize that we here in Washington D.C. are a city, we're not a state. We're going around talking about democracy all over the world, but we are the last pioneers. So everything that is done in Washington D.C. is controlled by a Congress that doesn't even look like most of the people in Washington D.C., and I hope you're listening Congress. We want the financial transaction tax now to improve our school system.

  • 13:53:45

    NNAMDIFor those people who may not understand this because you're listening someplace else, or you've just arrived in D.C., the District of Columbia does not have a vote in the U.S. Congress. We have a non-voting delegate who does not have a vote on the floor of the U.S. Congress. So when people talk about D.C. being the last colony, that's what they're talking about. Kim, thank you very much for your call.

  • 13:54:05

    NNAMDIThis we got from David in Arlington. "One of your guests made a key point that needs to be emphasized. She said that coming to parents with preformed solutions is not the way to engage parents or communities. I do not think so-called reform efforts will stick without this approach. Please ask your panel to discuss this and the racial and class dynamics that come into play." David Haiman?

  • 13:54:28

    HAIMANAbsolutely. I think across the board we've been doing a lot a lot of work in the last couple years with a group called the Annenberg Institute for School Reform in their New York office, and by and large what you see is very successful change strategies involve parents and communities as partners. And when you approach education simply as a technocratic process that communities can't be part of because they don't have the information or knowledge, then often those things don't stick, and you don't see lasting education reform. What you see is, as Mark was saying earlier, sort of the flavor of the day that gets passed by within a couple of years without really having any meaningful impact on the education system.

  • 13:55:01

    NNAMDIAnd Jonathan, what you're involved in, and Mark what you are writing about seems to be almost unique, because schools are often the anchor of communities and community identity. Education is arguably one of the most important fronts for social justice in America, and yet, Mark, you've traced the history of community activism in this county, and for most of the 20th century, and now going into the 21st, social justice and schools advocacy were separate.

  • 13:55:28

    WARRENWell, I'm not sure that I would say that as a broad sweep through the 21st -- 20th century. What I would say is that in the '50s and '60s, education was a central part of the social justice agenda of the civil rights movement, and of social justice activists more broadly. And I think it speaks to the idea that education really is at the center of liberation for people It's really -- how do young people develop the capacity to liberate themselves, to make the decisions about their own lives, it's through education, and the same for community.

  • 13:56:02

    WARRENSo education is not just like another issue like housing. Everybody needs housing, everybody needs food. Education gets inside of people, and I think it's so vital to that whole issue, and that's why it was central in the '50s and '60s, I believe. And then I think we hit a period in the '70s, '80s, into the '90s where it really was disconnected. And I'm not saying that nobody was concerned about education, there were people, but if you looked broadly you wouldn't have seen what we saw in the '50s and '60s.

  • 13:56:26

    WARRENAnd I believe that there's a new movement that has started over the last 10 or 15 years in this country where it's coming right back to the center of what we care about. People talking now about education is the civil rights issue of the day. Well, if education is the civil rights issue of the day, then we need a civil rights movement to address it. It's not gonna be solved by technocrats sitting in in Washington or state capitals, although they have a role to play, but that's not what solved -- that's not addressed the fundamental injustices we faced in the '50s and '60s. So if that's the case today, then I believe this new movement that's coming right back to the heart of social justice and community activism is where a big -- and essential part...

  • 13:57:01

    NNAMDIAnd I guess, Jonathan, the Youth Education Alliance, is a part of that movement, because it's an organization specifically formed to identify problems that young people are having in the education system.

  • 13:57:13

    STITHAbsolutely. Absolutely. I think that what we saw or our lineage or our history comes out of kind of the '80s and '90s where we saw a war on young people that was being waged through prison systems through lack of quality education, community centers and opportunities for young people being defunded. And so education became an important battle for young people to really engage, and for young people, that's the dream. That's the promise that we're told, that if we go to school, get a good education, that the world is ours. And so what happens when that very institution that is supposed to be the panacea for justice is in fact poison, and so there has to be a movement to correct that. Education institutions have to become institutions of justice.

  • 13:57:56

    NNAMDIJonathan Stith is executive director of the Youth Education Alliance. Jonathan, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:01

    STITHThank you.

  • 13:58:02

    NNAMDIAlicia Rucker is a community activist with Empower D.C., and the parent of five students in the District of Columbia public schools. Alicia, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:58:09

    RUCKERThank you.

  • 13:58:10

    NNAMDIDavid Haiman is principal and co-founder of Movement Matters. David, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:58:14

    HAIMANThanks for having me.

  • 13:58:14

    NNAMDIAnd Mark Warren is a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University and co-author of the book "A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform." Mark Warren, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:58:26

    WARRENThank you very much.

  • 13:58:27

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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