Take Action: Organize your school

Photos: Matthew Hall Photography

Photos: Matthew Hall Photography

Whether you have 5, 15, or 50 parents working together, everything starts somewhere and every voice matters. Here’s how to get an organized voice going at your school.

REACH OUT, GET TOGETHER

Across the city, parents are getting together in their living rooms or in schoolyards to talk about what can be done to protect their local schools. Some parents have come together to lobby their local council members or state representatives. Other have started fundraising drives to buy back some of the resources at their schools. Still others have started petitions to demand restoration of services. If something is bringing enough people together, then stick with it. Don’t limit yourself just to parents. Some of the strongest school voices have come through coalitions of business people, religious institutions, community residents, teachers, students and graduates/alumni of the school.

Make sure you have an effective way to communicate with one another and that you push out information on a regular basis. Sign up for Parents United’s newsletters and share our information.

KNOW YOUR SCHOOL

One of the most important things you can do is to make your school memorable. Your most important role is as an ambassador and lobbyist for your school as a passionate public school parent. Make clear that YOUR SCHOOL is being represented.

A basic start:

  • Wear your school t-shirt or a pin to any public or private meeting supporting your school.
  • Make sure any signs you carry have your school’s name on it.
  • If you care about an issue, know the data to back it up. If your concern is class size, know how many classrooms are overcrowded, how big they are and what the consequences are for children. EX: One high school in September 2014 opened with 50+ students on teacher’s rosters. There were so many students, there were not enough chairs so students sat on the floor and windowsills for the whole class period. If your concern is a lack of nurses, make those consequences clear. EX: A 2nd grader had an accident at recess but our nurse is only on duty once every 6 days so school staff were not sure what to do and sent the child home.
  • Use clear statistics which make your school unique and stand out. Every school has its problems, but only you can make your story compelling. For example, one West Philadelphia elementary school talked about the importance of their school counselor this way. The year before the counselor’s arrival there was a 20% admission rate of 8th graders  to select admit high schools. This year that rate is 83%. That’s the difference their counselor makes. Try to think of the things which will make your school shine.

Use available data resources:

  • Your school’s basic profile is online. This is information like school size, racial and economic information, suspensions, student and teacher attendance and PSSA scores, etc.
  • As a school parent, you have the right to see your school’s budget. School budgets are public documents. You can request to view your school’s budget by making a request to the office.
  • School budgets are also online, though slightly more complicated to find.
    • You can find the entire SDP FY15 budget here. This is a very complicated document but you can see broad categories outlined here which may be helpful comparisons against your local school budget.
    • You can find a large PDF of all FY15 school budgets here. This is the most current budget for your school. While unwieldy, use the search button on the PDF to locate your school.
    • Click here for an easier way to find and compare your school’s year to year budget. This site allows you to search any school’s budget from FY2009-FY2015. Scroll to the bottom. Put in your school name. Choose which year. View what type of report you want (we usually start with “Summary of School Purchases” which is the default category). Click the button “Get Report.”

BUILD A GROUP OF SUPPORTERS INSIDE AND OUTSIDE YOUR SCHOOL

The strongest parent groups find supporters and advocates to join you in cheerleading and working for your school. Start here:

  1. Find teachers and school staff who will ally with you. They have a lot of information and a unique perspective that can strengthen your advocacy efforts. Just make sure the partnership is healthy. People should be respectful and feel respected.
  2. Work with community-based partners like neighborhood groups, supportive businesses, nearby educational entities or centers, CDCs and civic associations, afterschool and daycare programs, and faith-based institutions. Look for positive people bringing positive energy as well as a sharp mind and good connections. It doesn’t hurt if they’ll also contribute money, time and ideas!
  3. Find a local advocacy group if possible – just be clear about your priorities and get to know the advocacy group well. Advocacy groups are extremely diverse and varied. Some are really invaluable while others might hold a different mindset from your own. Do some research, but if you connect with a good advocacy group, they too can bring some energy, ideas, and strategies to support your school.

FIND YOUR TARGET

Focus on the legislators that you think will make the most difference.

Here are key bodies and places for public input:

  • School Reform Commission: Meets monthly. For voting meetings, you must register with the School District by calling 215-400-4180 before 4:30 PM on the day before the meeting. You can find the SRC meeting schedule here. Read more about what to expect at the SRC.
  • City Council: City Council has an Education committee. It does not hold regular meetings. It does hold occasional hearings. Find the members of the City Council Education Committee here.
  • State of Pennsylvania: Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (Education Committee), Rep. James Roebuck (Chair (D), Education Committee), Sen. Vincent Hughes (Chair (D), Appropriations Committee) and Sen. Larry Farnese (Appropriations Committee) are all Philadelphia area legislators in key roles related to education in the Pennsylvania Legislature. Rep. Cherelle Parker is the head of the Philadelphia delegation. Contact these legislators to see what hearings may be coming up about the issues you care about.

START A PHONE TREE

Communication is a critical element of any campaign. A phone tree is a classic technique which helps share responsibility. Here’s a sample template to get a phone tree campaign started in your school:

  1. Identify your local Council representative and at-large Council members.
  2. Elected officials log phone calls. Your job is to make sure that a certain number of calls every day represent public education. Ten people calling once a week would ensure two phone calls a day. If you had 25 people at a school, you could ensure 5 phone calls a day. Assign one day – Monday through Friday – to each person in your group for the next four weeks. Phone calls take only five minutes a day.
  3. Identify yourself as a constituent and Philadelphia public school parent and make a statement or request. Here’s a sample:
  • City Council must deliver a  funding guarantee for the Philadelphia public schools.  The City needs to show leadership in addressing the funding crisis that is undermining our children’s schools.
  • The City must restore the 60-40 split for schools for property tax distribution. Under the Nutter administration, the percentage of dollars going to public schools has shifted to a 55-45 split. That small 5% differential is actually tens of millions of dollars due to Philadelphia children. Property taxes are one of the few growth funding sources that Philadelphia children don’t have to beg or plead for; this funding stream should be dedicated to schools, not manipulated by city interests.  
  • Ask the Councilperson where they will stand on a funding guarantee.

WORK THE MEDIA

District officials and elected officials pay attention to the media. That’s just how things operate. You don’t have to be on the front page of the newspaper or headlining the 6 p.m. news to make a media splash. You can do a number of things:

  • Write a letter to the editor
  • Contact a favorite columnist
  • Send out a press release for a major event for your school

Parents United will be developing a training for parents and the media. If you’d like to be kept aware of this, contact us here:

TESTIFY 

Giving testimony is time consuming but it is also the place where elected and District officials get to hear formal testimony on the public record. Here are a few tips:

  1. Try to avoid having the same person at your school give the same testimony at each hearing. The stronger tactic is to have at least several people, preferably more, to demonstrate that your school has a diverse and fierce voice behind it.
  2. Write out your testimony. Some people are great off the cuff, but most people need to think through what they want to say and how they want to say it. The advantage of having your testimony in writing is that you can share it with others, turn it into a blog post, and get it out in ways that unwritten testimony cannot.
  3. Time yourself. It’s unfortunate but you cannot speak forever, no matter  how urgent your issue is. Be aware of time limits. Stick to them or close to them. Wrap it up when time runs out and follow up later. It’s more important that you get there and make connections than to read every word and every line in your testimony. There are exceptions to this, but just keep in mind that there are only exceptions  not the rule.

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