Parents talk about the answer to a question posed by the group facilitator: "What are the characteristics of a quality education?"
Parents involved with Families for Excellent Schools sit in a small group discussion to talk about the answer to a question posed by the group facilitator: “What are the characteristics of a quality education?”

Regina Dowdell stepped up to the microphone and made an honest admission to the room full of fellow parents.

“I personally didn’t know exactly what the mayor did,” said Dowdell, whose daughter attends Girls Preparatory Bronx Charter School. “I think that’s an important focus today.”

Then a PowerPoint slide with the words “Why the mayor matters” flashed onto the screen, followed by slides explaining that the mayor chooses the chancellor and the majority of members on the Panel for Educational Policy, the city’s school board.

The education policy tutorial was part of Families for Excellent Schools‘ first town hall meeting, aimed at turning parents affiliated with the 18-month-old group into a political force in this year’s mayoral election. The nonprofit organization, which focuses on parent-to-parent training and has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from local and national foundations, is one of several trying to mobilize parents as a voting bloc this year.

The group’s top priorities are school choice, teacher evaluations, and ensuring that charter schools have access to public space. But rather than to tell the parents what to think, said Executive Director Jeremiah Kittredge, the purpose of Saturday’s event was to start a conversation for the 200 parents in attendance to begin understanding the policies they can push for.

“This is about developing a statement of principles that these families can use, on which they would hold a mayor who’s here for 10 or 12 years accountable,” Kittredge said. “It’s my hope, if we’re doing our job right, that folks here feel like they’re helping to found and grow an organization that’s not going away.”

More than 5,000 parents from more than 50 schools — almost all charter schools — have attended at least one event or training session during the school year, according to the group.

“Parents can be a political force if they really come together as advocates,” Kittredge said. “But that requires some real learning about what those policies are and how they work.”

On Saturday, the parents divided into 12 groups, with one parent facilitating each table’s discussion based on prompts such as, “What are the things you look for when choosing a great school for your child?” and “How do you know that a school is preparing students for success in college and beyond?” Then the groups brainstormed answers and voted on which issues should be considered top priorities.

Some of the responses fell neatly in line with FES’s agenda. Dowdell, for example, said she was especially worried about how the next mayor will deal with charter schools.

“Bloomberg has always been a huge supporter of charter schools,” she said. “It’s kind of scary that he’s not going to be here anymore.”

But the two ideas that parents brought up most often — the need for safer schools and more parental involvement — spanned education’s ideological divide.

“Parents need to be educated about the system, not just involved,” said Marcia James, who is the PTA president at her child’s KIPP Academy charter school. She added that she thought rivalries between public and charter schools are misguided. “Do not think of it as charter versus traditional public schools. Think of it as what will help our children.”

Carl Powlett, whose son attends Excellence Boys Charter in Brooklyn, said he came to the event because he wants to get more men involved with parent organizations.

“It’s the kind of traditional role that men in our community think women should take on and they’re simply not willing to take the time,” he said. “Mothers are raising these kids by themselves even when there’s a father in the home and we need to fix that.”

FES will hold another town hall meeting for Brooklyn parents April 30 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The Harlem and Brooklyn town halls will prepare parents for FES’s mayoral candidate forum in mid-June.

FES does not plan to endorse candidates, and Kittredge said 60 percent of parents in the group have not yet decided whom to vote for. He also said the organization is less concerned about election day and more focused on the years to come.

“We want to work with whoever the next mayor is to be focused on issues that our families care about,” Kittredge said. “This is less about picking a victor and more about making sure families’ voices are heard.”

Families for Excellent Schools created posters describing each mayoral candidate's personal biography, including where they were born, what schools they went to and whether they have children.
Families for Excellent Schools created posters describing each mayoral candidate’s personal biography, including where they were born, what schools they went to, and whether they have children. Anthony Weiner was included as a potential candidate. “If he does end up throwing his hat into the ring, people should know what he’s all about,” one FES staff member said.
Before Saturday's event began, parents were invited to write their own answers to questions like, "What is the biggest challenge facing your children?" and "What is your biggest dream for your children?"
Before Saturday’s event began, parents were invited to write their own answers to questions like, “What is the biggest challenge facing your children?” and “What is your biggest dream for your children?”
After Spanish-speaking parents spent an hour brainstorming a long list of issues most important to them, they each voted on which ones they would focus on first.
After parents spent an hour brainstorming a long list of issues most important to them, they each voted on which ones they would focus on first. Two of the discussion tables were solely dedicated to Spanish-speaking parents and all of the FES presentations at the event were translated to Spanish for these parents.