Q&A

Policy wonk-turned-producer explains new parent activism film

Producers of a new documentary about parent activism say they aim to inspire parents across the country to press for change.

The film, “Parent Power,” traces the organizing story that emanated from an effort to improve a single Bronx school in the mid-1990s and resulted in the citywide Coalition for Educational Justice. Set to premiere on Thursday, “Parent Power” was produced by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, which has long supported parent activism efforts, in collaboration with FPS Video Productions. (The premiere, at NYU’s Cantor Film Center, is open to the public.)

Filmmakers Norm Fruchter, an Annenberg Institute policy analyst, and Jose Gonzalez, a parent activist from the South Bronx, gathered 15 years of footage and photography of parent organizing efforts. They also interviewed teachers union president Randi Weingarten, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, parent activist Zakiyah Ansari, and others involved in supporting the parents’ efforts.

I spoke with Fruchter, who told me about the making of the movie, the origins of its story, and his hope that parent activists across the country tune in.

JC: Where does this story begin?

NF: [In 1996,] parents at the New Settlement Apartments in the South Bronx were concerned about their local elementary school. They got in touch with us to see if they could do a workshop with us about what their rights were and how they could go about getting involved.

The film chronicles the growth of the [New Settlement] Parent Action Committee and the work that they did to try to improve a particular school and how the community discovered that in order to improve that school they had to go through the school district and its superintendent and also the Department of Education and the schools chancellor. They realized they didn’t have enough power as a neighborhood group to move either the school district’s superintendent or the chancellor.

New Settlement convened a group of organizations in the South Bronx. Most of them decided that the public education in the South Bronx needed to be drastically improved and they were prepared to organize to bring that about. They formed what they called the Community Collaborative to Improve District 9 Schools (CC9), that would work first to improve education in District 9 in the South Bronx and then in all of the South Bronx schools.

How did you organize the film to show the parent organization efforts that grew from there?

We tell three stories: the story of the Parent Action Committee trying to impact a local school; the story of CC9 trying to improve education in District 9 and developing the Lead Teacher Project; and we tell the story of the Coalition for Educational Justice trying to improve middle schools across the system. Within the CEJ section we also tell the story of Highbridge getting a middle school.

So the goal was to tell these three big stories and one little story to show how these campaigns developed out of the local groups. It tells the story of the organizations and, in each case, makes the argument that school reform depends on the action and mobilization of community groups.

How did you gather the fifteen years of footage?

When we started trying to compile footage and photos for the film we went to all of the organizations that were part of it – CC9, the Parent Action Committee, the other programs that are part of CEJ and we appealed to individual parents who were part of the organizations. A lot of the demonstrations and actions were covered by local TV stations so we asked people for any photos of any meetings or retreats or demonstrations and that’s what we put the film together with.

We started shooting our own video for coverage’s sake in 2007, so we had footage from the years 2007 through 2010, when the film ends.

How did the different chancellors react to the parent organizing efforts?

The period of the film spans three chancellors: Harold Levy, Rudy Crew and Joel Klein. Crew was somewhat receptive to parent organizing. Levy met with some of the groups but basically was not responsive to what they wanted.

And when the Bloomberg administration — under mayoral control — reorganized the school system it became much harder to do parent organizing because the structure was constantly changing. The Bloomberg/Klein administration did not respond particularly well to criticism and really thought that the parents’ role should be confined to helping your child do well in school, which is clearly a necessary role. But parent participation beyond that was not welcome.

The film argues that parents made a fair amount of headway under the Bloomberg administration, but it was through enormous efforts of organizing and opposition.

Who is your target audience?

There are 300 to 500 groups across the country who are doing this work. We made the film primarily to distribute to them, at the inspirational level, to show them that this work does yield demonstrable results. And on the second level, to suggest some ways to go about it.

What do you want viewers to get out of watching “Parent Power”?

In a period when market-based school reform is dominated by foundations and top-down efforts, what we tried to make is a film that shows the importance of community-based, bottom-up efforts at school reform.

study says...

In new study of school-district effectiveness, New York City falls just below national average

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Each year, state test scores offer a snapshot of how much New York City students have learned. But they say little about how the city’s schools stack up against other districts’, in part because the raw scores largely reflect student demographics — wealthier districts tend to have higher scores.

Now, a major new analysis of several years of test scores from across the country provides a better way to judge and compare districts: Instead of looking at a single moment, it shows how well school systems help students grow their skills over time.

Based on that measure, New York City falls just below the middle of the pack: In the five years from third to eighth grade, its students collectively make about 4.6 grade levels of progress — landing New York in the 35th percentile of districts nationally. By contrast, Chicago students advance the equivalent of six grades within those five years, giving the district one of the highest growth rates in the country.

Still, New York is slightly above average when compared to other large districts with many students from low-income families. And it trounces the state’s other urban districts — including Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester, which have some of the nation’s worst growth rates.

“Among big poor districts, it’s better than average,” said Sean Reardon, the Stanford University researcher who conducted the analysis. “In the grand scheme, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road.”

Reardon’s analysis — based on 300 million standardized tests taken by students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015 — is the largest of its kind. It looks both at student proficiency on third-grade math and English tests (that is, what share of students earned a score deemed “proficient”) and student growth between grades three and eight (how much their scores improved over time). Reardon’s research was supported by several foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to Chalkbeat.

The analysis controls for the differences in tests across states and over time by converting scores into a common scale that measures growth in grade levels, making it possible to compare nearly every district in the country to one another. (It excludes New York’s scores from 2015 and some grades in 2014 because of the high number of students who boycotted the state tests those years. However, each district’s five-year growth rates is actually an average of its year-over-year growth, so Reardon was still able to calculate a five-year rate for New York.)

Experts generally prefer growth rates over proficiency as a way to evaluate school quality, since growth measures the progress students make in school rather than where they started. Even if a district enrolls many poor students who are less likely than their affluent peers to hit the “proficiency” benchmark, its schools can still help them advance at a rate comparable to or even better than schools filled with wealthier students.

“Growth is way better than achievement,” said Douglas Ready, an education and public policy professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We know low-income students start school behind — the question is what do school districts do with the kids they get?”

New York’s growth rate falls just below the national median of 4.8 grade levels. Among big districts, its students made gains similar to those in Dallas and Detroit, and greater than students in Los Angeles, Miami, and Indianapolis.

By contrast, Rochester ranks rock-bottom nationally. In that high-poverty district, where the median income among families with children in the public schools is $26,000, students advanced about three grade levels in five years. Yonkers’ $48,000 median income is much higher, yet its schools barely do better, with students moving just 3.5 grade levels. (Among New York City public-school parents, the median income is $42,000.)

Reardon emphasized that test scores provide an important but incomplete picture of student learning, and growth rates are an imperfect measure of school effectiveness since factors outside of the classroom also influence how much students learn over time.

Still, he argued that officials who rate schools and parents who choose them would do much better to look at a school’s growth rate over its average test scores. In fact, he said, a focus on growth rates could theoretically drive down socioeconomic segregation since higher-income parents might be willing to enroll their children in schools with many poor students and low overall test scores if the schools nonetheless had outstanding growth rates.

Ready, however, pointed out that even when schools and districts are highly effective at helping students make progress, they are still unlikely to close the yawning achievement gaps that separate most poor and wealthier students from the time they start school. Reardon came to the same conclusion.

“The large gaps in students’ academic skills between low- and higher-[socioeconomic status] districts are so large,” Reardon’s analysis says, “that even the highest growth rate in the country would be insufficient to close even half of the gap by eighth grade.”

In response to the analysis, New York City education department officials pointed to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test taken by a representative sample of students in each state and certain districts, including New York. Only one other district among the country’s 10 largest cities performed better in reading and math than New York, which had the highest share of low-income students reach the proficient level on the reading test.

“Our schools are the strongest they’ve ever been, with record-high graduation and college enrollment rates, and improving state test scores,” said the district’s spokesman, Will Mantell.

change up

Just as Lower East Side integration plan takes off, superintendent who helped craft it steps down

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carry Chan, left, will become acting superintendent in District 1 when Daniella Phillips, right, leaves this month to join the central education department.

The longtime superintendent of the Manhattan community district where parents pushed for a plan to desegregate the local schools is stepping down just as the plan gets underway.

After a decade at the helm of District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and East Village, Superintendent Daniella Phillips is leaving to join the central education department, Chalkbeat has learned. During the yearslong campaign for an integration plan, Phillips acted as a liaison between parents and the education department, which finally approved a new admissions system for the district’s elementary schools this fall.

She will be replaced by Carry Chan, who has also played a role in the district’s diversity efforts as the interim head of a new Family Resource Center, an information hub to help district parents sort through their school options. Chan takes over as acting superintendent on Dec. 18.

The leadership change comes at a crucial time for the district, which also includes a portion of Chinatown. Parents are currently applying to elementary schools, marking the first admissions cycle under the new enrollment system. Under the system, schools give certain students admissions priority based on their economic status and other factors, with the goal of every elementary school enrolling share of disadvantaged students similar to the district average.

It will be up to the new superintendent to help schools recruit and welcome a greater mix of families, and to help steer parents towards a wider range of schools. Advocates hope the district can become a model for the city.

“There is a torch that needs to be carried in order to really, fully execute,” said Naomi Peña, president of the district’s parent council. “The next superintendent has to be a champion for the mission and the cause.”

During heated public meetings, Phillips tried to keep the peace while serving as a go-between for frustrated integration advocates and reluctant education department officials. The tensions sometimes boiled over, with advocates directing their anger at Phillips — though they were eventually won-over and endorsed the final integration plan.

In her new role, she will oversee school consolidations as part of the education department’s Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships. In District 1, Phillips helped steer three such mergers, which often involve combining small, low-performing schools with ones that are higher achieving.

“It has been such a joy and privilege to be District 1 superintendent for over 10 years, and I’m excited for this next chapter in the district and my career,” Phillips said in an emailed statement.

Chan is a former principal who launched the School for Global Leaders, a middle school that focuses on community service projects and offers Mandarin classes. Last year, she joined the education department’s Manhattan support center, where she helped schools form partnerships in order to learn from one another.

Since October, Chan has served as the interim director of District 1’s Family Resource Center, which is seen as an integral part of making the new diversity plan work. Families must apply for seats in the district’s elementary schools, which do not have attendance zones like other districts. The family center aims to arm families with more information about their options, in the hopes that they will consider schools they may not have previously.

“I think we’re all really passionate about this plan and we really want this to work,” Chan said. “Communication is the key, and being transparent with how we’re progressing with this work.”