Dionne Bray and Son (Stand for Children)
Dionne Bray’s hot pink shirt is the only thing loud about her. She is a woman of few words, and even those come out softly. But with the help of an organizer from the education advocacy group Stand for Children, Dionne and several other moms at Vision Preparatory Charter School are learning how to use their voices. Why?
“They do listen to parents,” Bray says. The “they” she refers to is the Shelby County Schools Board of Education. She and her fellow parents have made several trips to SCS board meetings to advocate for policies that will help charter schools. Bray hasn’t spoken yet, but she’s stood beside other moms at the podium as they have made their cases.
SCS board member Kevin Woods agrees with Bray. “Parental advocacy is one of the most effective ways to improve schools,” he says.
An advocate? Who, me?
The concept of advocacy — publicly voicing your support for a certain cause or policy — sounds simple. The practice of advocating for your child’s education, on the other hand, can be anything but. You feel uncertain about the issues, or hesitant to question people you consider to be education experts. Your palms may get sweaty just thinking about speaking out publicly.
Laura Meanwell considers herself an unlikely advocate. Her group, Germantown Cares, started with just a few concerned moms who met around her kitchen table, lamenting the effects of an early school start time on their teenagers’ sleep schedules. But as word spread, she realized she’d struck a nerve, and soon, she was speaking at every school board meeting, in front of flashing cameras.
“It can be intimidating,” Meanwell says. “But it can be exciting too!”
While Laura has relied on the legal and marketing savvy of other parents in her group, organizations like the new Parent Leadership and Advocacy Institute (PLAI) focus on developing similar skills among the parents of children in struggling schools.
PLAI is the local affiliate of the national group Democrats for Education Reform.
“We’re building advocacy muscle,” says Dr. Ian Buchanan, deputy director of PLAI. The group’s Public Advocate Fellowship (PAF) takes 24 parents through an intensive 10-week course, during which they learn about the education landscape and connect with local leaders. In addition, they receive training in communications and learn how to effectively use technology (participants also receive a stipend and laptop).
Frayser mom Marquita Finnie was a member of the first PAF cohort earlier this year.
“I have started volunteering at the school to see for myself what is going on,” Finnie says. “I’m a different person after being a part of the fellowship.”
Her experiences also led her to become a founding member of Memphis Lift, a group of parents who knocked on more than 8,000 doors in the summer heat, educating parents about what it means for their children to attend a priority school, the state’s designation for schools in the bottom 5 percent for academic achievement.
“Our children deserve a lot better,” says Kennethea Sledge, another Memphis Lift member. “Kids need someone to back them up.”
How to participate
Maybe you’re not ready to knock on doors or step up to the microphone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be an advocate. Talking with your own children about how important education is to you is an important — and vital — first step. Participating in every parent-teacher conference shows both your kids and their teachers that you plan to play an active role in their schooling.
Cynthia Alexander-Mitchell, director of family engagement for Shelby County Schools, recommends parents take part in a school’s support organization, like a PTA or PTO, which often does advocacy work beyond fundraising.
“Most schools also have a School Improvement Planning team, or a Site-Based Decision Making Committee, both of which include parent representatives,” Alexander-Mitchell says. Such groups meet regularly with a team of administrators and teachers to make recommendations for school programs or policies. If you’re not sure if your school has one, ask school leaders.
One motivation: helping kids
Marquita Finnie is as outgoing as Dionne Bray is unassuming, or Laura Meanwell is measured. But despite their personality differences, each mom has the same motivation — her kids. Not only do these moms want to help improve their school experiences, but they also hope to show their children what it means to stand up for something they believe in.
“Of all the things I’ve modeled for my kids,” says Meanwell, “this is one of the main things I hope they take with them.”
Back at Vision Prep, Bray stops her Stand for Children organizer after their advocacy meeting with a gentle touch on the arm.
“Next time we go to the board meeting,” she says softly, “I want to speak too.”
— Ginger Spickler is the creator of Memphis School Guide, your guide to Memphis & Shelby County K-12 Schools. • For more information on how to get involved with education advocacy, visit memphisschoolguide.org
Memphis Lift firstname.lastname@example.org
Parent Leadership & AdvocacyInst. Contact Ian Buchanan, email@example.com
Shelby County Regional Special Education PTA shelbycountysepta.org
Stand for Children stand.org/tennessee
Tennessee PTA tnpta.org