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. Others have started petitions to demand restoration of services.

If something is bringing 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 all the SDP budget documents here. These are complicated documents but you can see broad categories outlined which may be helpful, and you can find individual school budgets as well as the guide to budgets.

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, after school 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:

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.

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, sign up for our email list.

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.
  4. Read more about testifying at BoE meetings.

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