How Parents in One Low-Income Town Are Raising Hell to Save Their Schools

Let no educator, parent or advocate ever say parents don’t care about how their children do in school. Most really do, and given the right chance, will do all they can to help.

Here in the heart of the nation’s poorest region, in a historic but partially destitute town, parents are gathering regularly to chart a course for better schools, a better community and better lives for their families.

It’s happening through a growing program from the national nonprofit group Parents for Public Schools, based in Jackson, but with active chapters in big cities and small towns across the country.

The organization’s newly revamped Parent Engagement Program, or PEP, now exists in several Mississippi towns and elsewhere: Kalamazoo, Michigan; Cincinnati; Seattle; and Pitt County, North Carolina. (The expansion has been funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

I first learned of Parents for Public Schools when I was asked to help them with some media relations and planning a few years ago. I attended a parent workshop in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 2012 and was terribly impressed. There I sat with teenage mothers from remote Jefferson Davis County on their first day of a two-year commitment, and on that first day we delved into discussions of how their children’s schools were faring, looked at test scores and graduation rates, analyzed whether their school leaders were following best practices, debated the Common Core State Standards, and more.

I spoke with a parent-coach with Parents for Public Schools who worked in Meridian, Mississippi, Becky Glover, who told me about how graduates of the parent program were raising hell and doing good in that city and nearby Lauderdale County, Mississippi. Some even ended up on the school board, hoping to change things for the better.

It was powerful, no doubt.

That same program has now evolved into PEP.

Earlier this fall, I had a chance to spend the day with the PEP group in the Mississippi Delta, and I found an engaged group of people with two spirited leaders who plan to work on long-term school and community improvement projects. If only this were happening in urban neighborhoods and rural communities across the nation, with more regularity and structure. The national PTA has some similar parent engagement programs, but in too many cases parent-school engagement is limited to fundraisers, report card time or children’s holiday programs. Parents in low-income areas often don’t have the time to participate—they’re busy working or parenting—and don’t have the extra income to contribute to the school’s extracurricular or expanded educational offerings.

For a lot of parents, said Greenwood PEP co-leader Tijuanda Beckworth, a mother of two who helped found the Parents for Public Schools chapter in Greenwood, “It’s not that you don’t want to be involved in school. It’s more like, what steps do I take?”

“The parents always blame the teachers, the teachers always blame the parents. … You want to get out of the blame game. (It) helped us to strategize, what questions to ask, how to ask those questions” and led everyone to discover “the difference between involvement and engagement,” said Beckworth, whose own participation in PEP led her to start a book club for male students.

New Bonds, Heavy History

The program helps promising community leaders grow their skills and experience, too. Beckworth now chairs the local Chamber of Commerce’s education committee and has a community mixer coming up for business owners — a big deal in a town where the schools are almost entirely racially segregated and the wealth gap is undeniable: antebellum mansions on one end of town, and third-world-type streets just a mile away.

Just down Money Road out of Greenwood, past several miles of flat cotton fields and the believed gravesite of the great bluesman Robert Johnson, sits the old store where Chicago teenager Emmitt Till allegedly flirted with a white woman shopkeeper and was then abducted from his nearby uncle’s house, murdered and thrown into the Tallahatchie River by some white men.

The legacy of the Till killing and the unavoidable signs of poverty in the Delta show why black parents demanding more of their children’s education is an especially powerful endeavor. “It empowers me as a parent. It empowers me as a community leader. You can only give what you know,” Beckworth said.

The setting in the Leflore County schools, which include the city of Greenwood, is one of current controversy. There, a controversial state takeover of the local schools may solve some problems, but parents worry it isn’t helping students who are behind academically.

The racial segregation in the school system has lots to do with the slow progress here. Like many towns in the black belt across the South — the same as it is in many big-city neighborhoods — gaps in wealth and race persist. “Most of those who have money to give are in the private schools,” Beckworth said.

Probing Questions

For the PEP event, parents gathered at the conference center at Greenwood-Leflore County Hospital early on a Saturday morning. Bacon was fried and coffee percolated.

Parents began the morning by discussing some of the issues they were facing in the local schools. One woman said families feel unwelcome in the schools: “A parent comes in and the secretary says, ‘What’s wrong?’”

Small discussion groups helped parents sort through other challenges and possible solutions. They wrote on big pads in magic markers: a need for bilingual staff with an influx of Hispanic students in town, classrooms meant for early childhood classes now housing middle schoolers who are cramped, and a lack of guidance from the schools on the changes in instruction happening under the Common Core State Standards.

A guest speaker then led parents through a discussion on the new standards and their classroom impact. “Common Core deals with depth not breadth,” said Mary Johnson, curriculum director for the Leflore County schools. “It takes our children away from memorizing answers … to think about ‘why’,” she said. “If your child leaves here and goes to New York, they should perform. No longer are they doing (just) what Mississippi says they should know. It’s national. … It’s what good teachers have always done.”

This was great news to parent Chackan Lindsey, whose nephew had moved to Georgia. “They was going to hold him back because of our educational level vs. Georgia’s education level,” she said.

Parent Shirley Cooper politely pushed another guest speaker, a local assistant principal named Michelle Armstrong, from nearby Itta Bena, on why schools weren’t doing better helping parents work with students to stay on track academically. “We’re constantly looking at the data,” Cooper responded, saying her team was emphasizing the increase in rigor. “We want all students to grow.”

Then Jerrick Cheeks, not a school dad but with child relatives in local schools, brought up other issues in a discussion on an article about school accreditation, and how some mostly white schools were allowed to keep their sports teams when the state took over the district while black programs were threatened.

The interaction—and the questions parents were asking themselves and, importantly, to local education leaders, was stirring.

“I love watching this. It makes my heart sing,” said Nita Rudy from the sidelines, who oversees PEP programs for Parents for Public Schools nationally.

PEP co-leader Sadie Daniels, prone to breaking into song and laughing really big, led the parents through a review of complex test-score data. She said the state’s new school accreditation system involves test scores, grades, attendance, graduation rates and more. “We can know whether are students are moving, whether our teachers need to go back to professional development,” Daniels said.

This was all in just one day of a PEP program that lasts five or six months for this group, with community-based coaches there to work with them for up to two years on their own school improvement projects, Nita Rudy said.

As the day wrapped up, after a Southern lunch with homemade banana pudding for dessert, Tijuanda Beckwith reminded the group of everyone’s homework assignments. They were to begin work on their local leadership plans, begin local learning communities of parents, and more. They could use their tablet computers that come with the PPS program to find resources.

“Invite a few parents and meet with them before the next class,” she said. “In addressing problems, ask the school what they’re doing. Maybe offer to collaborate.”

Not a big step for many affluent parents with more power to stir change in their communities — or to sustain success. Here, and in many other places in my native South where so many parents have been disenfranchised, these steps could contribute to a big, wide turn — especially as a movement leading to a November 2015 ballot initiative to amend Mississippi’s constitution demanding better school funding gets under way. (There is also an alternative initiative on the ballot).

And so the waters of the Tallahatchie ripple just a bit. No telling where those little waves will go.

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