When parents in Denver suspected there were inequities in the public school system, they turned to Fordham’s National Center for Schools and Communities for assistance researching their district. What the Center discovered was that the children who scored the best on academic test were clustered in the wealthier school districts. And these schools had the most experienced educators and the fewest teachers with emergency certification. The Center, does not advocate for the parents or children. Instead it does the research and provides the data parents need to approach administrators to ask for change. In the Denver case the parents were able to bring the facts to district administrators and the media and gain a seat at the discussion table.
“Basically there are a lot of inequities in the public school system and Denver is one example of how we can help parents fight for equity for their children,” said Center Executive Director John Beam, D.S.W. “We provide policy analysis and research assistance to parents and communities so they can approach their administrators with some tools. We give them the information that will get the attention they need from the media and the district supervisors.” A collaborative effort between the Graduate School of Social Service and the Graduate School of Education, the Center currently has a staff of five but hopes to expand to about nine in the next two years.
It works with professors in both schools, using their knowledge to help parents with children in the public school system. “We are lucky to have access to experts in social policy and education issues,” he said. “We are able to tap into the expertise of Fordham’s professors, which is extremely beneficial to us.” The Center’s resources are used by parent and community groups across the country. “Current work is being done in six states,” Beam said.
“Public education has the responsibility to hold us together as a society and as an economy but the reality is that the opposite is occurring,” he said. “There is a perception out there that low income students need only the bare minimum and this does little to integrate these kids into society or to bring them economic success. What we do is provide the tools for parents to fight for their children. We help them get a seat at the table where they can be a part of the discussions and the solutions.” In New York City, for example, only a handful of schools have courses that are mandatory for admission to the more competitive public schools, such as Stuyvesant.
“Very few students can even apply because they live in low-income districts that don’t provide the courses necessary,” he said. “It’s this kind of inequity that we work against.” The Center comes up with the graphic examples the parents need to tell their story and gain the attention of those in power, said Diane Pagen, program coordinator. “Ultimately parents are responsible for their children, we can’t do it for them,” she said. “We give them the resources to go to bat for their children. One or two of us sitting in an office may not have much of an impact. But get a group of parents together, and you could generate enough momentum to create change.”
In addition, the Center also worked with New York City to monitor and suggest improvements to its Virtual Y after school program. “It has been a great experience for all of us because it involved monitoring, analyzing and ultimately making suggestions for change,” said Gillian Eddins, a research associate with the Center. “These changes were made as the program progressed and it was very rewarding, although did pose some difficulties because things changed.” The Center expects the hot topics in coming years to include the distribution of teaching resources, access to curricula and facilities and overcrowding. “There are a lot of issues out there that we will be investigating,” Beam said. “We are in the process of amassing electronic resources that will allow us to tap into state level and hopefully city level data on schools so we can help the parents even more.”