In the Schools

To understand IMPACT’s long term work in local public schools, it is important to understand the origins of IMPACT and the underlying theory of change. IMPACT was founded in 1999 by a group of long time community practitioners who believed that local residents have the best ideas for how to change their community and that relationships of trust must be formed across lines of difference to achieve these changes.  In the beginning, IMPACT offered a neutral, long term space in the form of a nine month community leadership program. It provided extremely diverse residents the opportunity to build relationships of trust, increase community building skills, explore ideas for community change and spark collective action.

Achievement Gap versus Affordable Housing

After three years of offering these intensive learning communities to over 60 diverse residents, the achievement gap in public schools emerged as the top issue within the extended IMPACT network. This collective passion was rooted in the fact that despite the relative wealth of our school district, students of color performed significantly below whites and Asians, regardless of the economic class of the students.  Some of IMPACT’s original founders were surprised that public schools generated more passion and action than the issue of affordable housing, given the extremely high cost of housing in our area.

The initial team of passionate people devoted to closing the achievement gap  included several young adults of color, youth workers, immigrant parents, white PTA leaders, one teacher union activist and a former education policy wonk.  For almost two years ranging from 2000 to 2002, this loosely constituted team experimented with small action projects ranging from joint events for low income Latino and Vietnamese parents, an information booklet for Ethiopian families and a workshop series on how PTA’s can be more inclusive.  They learned a lot about education and about team work. They built new relationships with a wide assortment of people. And, most importantly, they developed a stronger bond among themselves.

Testing for Resonance, Finding an Entry Door

As is true with many small, volunteer-led groups, the achievement gap team quickly felt overwhelmed. Their action research opened up so many possibilities and angles, but yet they felt powerless when balanced against a $2 billion school system.  Fortunately, they put into practice the core operating principle of network-centric organizing: keep engaging more people and look for the most resonate opportunities within these connected conversations. One clear message bubbled up over and over again: Race is at the center of the achievement gap but there is no safe place to talk or act on racial barriers.

At a pivotal moment in 2002, the team learned that the school system had failed to recruit diverse participants for a state mandated Study Circle Initiative. (Study Circles is a nationally-recognized model for supporting small group dialogue around difficult issues).  The team had experienced theStudy Circletool within IMPACT and decided to jump in over night to “take over” the initiative. In less than four weeks, this small, diverse team of 10 residents recruited 120 extremely diverse parents, teachers and students to participate in the school’s systemStudy Circleinitiative and relied on their growing network of skilled community residents to facilitate each circle. The school superintendent was in a state of shock when he showed up at the culminating action forum and observed over 120 new faces coming together around seven action mandates in a clear, coherent and powerful fashion.

The most resonate mandate of the night was the need to reduce barriers for parents of color who do not feel welcomed or engaged or empowered to act on their child’s behalf. Over and over again, people told the story of their neighborhood school where over 70 or 80% of the students are of color, but the PTAs and active parents are virtually all white.

That night was a shot of confidence for the team, bringing them a clear entry door into the complex issue of the achievement gap and a new, diverse network to call upon as the journey continued to unfold.

Learning When to Say No and When to Say Yes

Interestingly, the action forum night also led to the school system’s decision to birth an on-going Study Circle Initiative, which is alive and thriving to this day, nine years later. IMPACT considered holding on to this body of work and serving as a contractor to the school system, but ultimately declined the opportunity because the School Superintendent insisted that the project be scaled up overnight into 21 different schools. The IMPACT team fervently believed Study Circles to be useful only when there is capacity to support the action flowing from the honest dialogue. They were not interested in serving as part of a public relations or feel good campaign.

It should be noted that two of IMPACT’s close community colleagues did accept the offer to work inside the school system to build out the Study Circle Initiative and stuck with it this entire time, helping to spread a very important dialogue practice system-wide.  Eventually, after considerable urging, the Superintendent also initiated a long term effort to look at the role of race within his senior team. In a conversation in Fall 2010, Deputy Superintendent Frieda Lacey told some of the original IMPACT team that she credited IMPACT for being the key spark to a much more serious conversation and action plan to break down racial barriers within the school system.

Another defining moment emerged as the IMPACT team began to reflect on the clear mandate around parent organizing.  A local funder announced a new round of grants devoted to educational equity. As is often the case, the team discovered this opportunity just three weeks before the grant deadline. In considering options for how to shape a proposal, the team met with another group of education activists focused on changing the practice of tracking students according to a child’s skill level. They proposed joining forces in one school where the test score gap was growing and the principal seemed open to partnering with the community to spark change. In less than ten days, this volunteer-led team negotiated with the other community team (Montgomery County Education Forum), decided to commit to a year long effort at one school inSilver Springand wrote a grant seeking $30,000.

Supply-Side Community Change Does Not Work

IMPACT got the grant, hired one of the volunteer leaders on a part time basis and proceeded to spend a very painful year learning a fundamental lesson: supply side change, even when initially grounded in community voice, does not work. In this case, the partnership atPineyBranchElementary Schoolwas fueled by three very different “supply side” sources and each of them not truly grounded in families from that school. IMPACT sought to implement a year long dialogue and action process for diverse stakeholders, based on the positive outcomes from their earlier leadership programs. The Montgomery County Education Forum (MCEF) insisted on trying to recruit parents of color to sit in on classrooms to document the negative impacts of tracking. The principal was desperate to prove to his bosses that he was working on the growing achievement gap in his school, but he was not willing to directly confront issues of race.

After six long months of meetings and parent outreach sessions, it became clear that MCEF could not recruit parents for their action research project and that the Principal did not want to partner with them. IMPACT politely asked them to bow out of the partnership, but by then the IMPACT team had no ability to convince the principal and a diverse group of parents to commit to a long term collaborative action process. So, as an alternative step, IMPACT proposed and facilitated a day long “action planning retreat” attended by nearly 40 parents, teachers and staff. During this session, the deep divisions within the school community along lines of race and class became evident, as well as the Principal’s refusal to directly confront the conflict.

Friendly Persistence Pays Off

The IMPACT Team listened carefully during the retreat at Piney Branch E.S., and one message came through loud and clear: African American families wanted a more intensive and affordable after-school program to help their children with reading and math. The team also observed over and over again how few immigrant parents came to any school or PTA sponsored meetings, despite fairly creative outreach methods. Two of the IMPACT team members, Ray Moreno (a Latino man) and Michael Pauls (an African American man), now had children attendingPineyBranchElementary Schooland they directly experienced why parents of color and immigrant background did not feel comfortable in the white-led PTA meetings.

An interesting side note is that both Ray and Michael attendedPineyBranchElementary Schoolas little boys and have been friends ever since. They both tell stories of falling through the cracks in the public education system, especially during their years at the oldBlairHigh School. They credit their service in the military as the primary catalyst for getting them on a productive life path. After serving together in Desert Storm, they returned toSilver Springto give back to the community in which they were raised. Both participated in IMPACT’s early leadership development program.

After IMPACT received the first grant mentioned above, Ray became the part time lead organizer and Michael, among others, contributed many volunteer hours. They were deeply affected by the internal struggle of this first year at Piney Branch but refused to give up.  Ray came up with a brilliant idea. In response to the pleas of some of the African American parents, he proposed convincing the Commonweal Foundation to open one of their math and reading programs at the school as a summer camp and an after school program. This would then give the IMPACT team a direct service to offer to African American and immigrant parents and a platform for building relationships of trust with these diverse parents.

Ray’s plan worked. Commonweal was delighted to be invited, especially by Ray with whom they had worked closely when he ran a YMCA after-school site. This gave Ray some added credibility with both existing parent leaders and helped to re-open a new relationship building process with the school.  Ray, and his team of diverse volunteers from the IMPACT network, embarked on an intense six month long door knocking campaign from Summer 2003 to Spring 2004, both to recruit parents for the math/reading program and to begin talking directly to them about the achievement gap, outside the four walls of the school.

A Story of True Authentic Demand

The neighborhood that feeds intoPineyBranchElementary Schoolis one of extreme contrasts. On one side ofMaple Avenueare ten large high rise apartment buildings home to an older African American community and an extremely diverse array of new and older immigrants from Central and South America, East Africa and theCaribbean. If you follow Maple Ave up the hill and across East-West Highway, you will be in the midst of a charming upper middle class neighborhood of old Victorian and bungalow houses. The vast majority of these residents are white professionals of extremely liberal persuasion.

Ray and Michael grew up on the lower income side ofMaple Avenueand knew it well. But, given the huge demographic shift over the last ten years, they knew they needed others on their team. IMPACT recruited Winta Teferi, a younger East African activist from the local community college, as an AmeriCorps member and she jumped in with Ray to become a relentless community organizer up and down the corridors of these apartment complexes.  Ray, Michael and Winta spent nine months building relationships with a group of 30 lower income parents. Most were women, one third were African American and the rest were either newer immigrants from East Africa or Central andSouth America.  Here’s how they did it:

  • They met one on one with parents who had signed on to the new after school program.
  • They held an informal pizza gathering for both kids and parents nearly every Friday night in the commons room of one of the apartment communities.
  • They worked with the initial parents who came to the pizza gatherings to design a simple survey about whether other parents understood the achievement gap.
  • They organized small teams of these parents to go knock on doors of other parents in their complexes, using the survey as the hook for a longer conversation.
  • They got involved in helping parents with a large number of housing, work and health care issues.
  • These parents would often refer their friends for assistance and in turn, Ray and Winta would invite them to join in on the pizza nights.
  • They asked parents what they wanted to learn in terms of public schools and then they would work with them to design a small workshop on that topic.
  • They organized small “field trips” to school-wide events and began to bring in resource people from the school into the Friday night circle.

When the IMPACT core team, which now included several of the new parents, stopped to reflect on what they were hearing and learning from all of these relationships and conversations, several conflicting assessments bubbled up:

→       The lower income African American parents had given up on the school system and were mostly concerned about how to keep their kids off the streets when out of school.

→       The immigrant parents were grateful for a nice school building but had no clue about how to talk to their kids or school staff about homework, discipline and grades.  They felt bewildered and even depressed.

In addition, the IMPACT team, now in their second year of funding from a very involved funder, was feeling pressure to show how their efforts were helping to close the achievement gap. At the same time, certain ethnic-based community leaders, who noticed the team’s ability to gather diverse parents like no one else, wanted IMPACT to recruit these parents to lobby for pre-determined agendas for school reform. In the meantime, the principal atPineyBranchElementary Schoolhad left and was replaced with the assistant principal, a man of Afro-Caribbean background with his own immigration story. He began sending signals that he needed help managing the continued sub-surface conflict between over-empowered white parents and the many parents of color who simply did not show up for parent teacher conferences, school events and PTA meetings. The IMPACT team felt pulled again – in so many directions – and was not clear about how to hold all of these “authentic demands” together in one manageable container.

With support from others within IMPACT, the team began exploring best practices around the country and met repeatedly with several “national gurus” on parent engagement and racial equity in the schools.  Mostly, they spent time in small meetings with each other and core parent leaders asking the question: what feels like the right thing to do?

Learning the Lesson of Momentum – Birth of the Parent Training Institute

One of the key lessons for any set of social entrepreneurs is the importance of momentum. When trying to address complex social issues, the answers are never clear. What is clear is that you learn from every step you take and each of these foundational steps helps you take a next and better step.

After a good deal of internal turmoil, the team decided that their primary partners were the new immigrant parents along Maple Avenue and that they were clearly asking for a space – like the pizza nights – in which they could learn to be good parents in this new environment and in connection with the school. This request resonated with a vision of Michael Pauls’ from the very beginning – Parent Resource Centers in every neighborhood. And, the new Principal welcomed the idea of sponsoring a program that would get immigrant parents in the door of the school and IMPACT’s funder was delighted to learn that the team wanted to “replicate” parent training models used in other parts of the country. (Of course, the team did not fully reveal that they had their own version in mind, one directly responsive to the parents alongMaple Avenue).

So, without delay, the team plunged into offering the first Parent Training Institute in the Fall of 2004 atPineyBranchElementary School, designed to serve 30 to 40 parents at a time over a seven week period. The IMPACT design team now included three or four of the original pizza night parents and many of the other original parents jumped in to provide volunteer support with childcare, translation, food preparation and other tasks. Moving forward without a full plan provided this parent leadership network a sense of purpose and the creative tension necessary for innovating in the moment.  Some of the innovations that occurred were:

  • Offering the parent training to a wide mix of parents, both immigrant and African American.
  • Securing translation equipment and offering full group sessions in four to five languages.
  • Using multicultural parent facilitators to divide the full group into separate language groups for one half of each session, to ensure that everyone was connecting and understanding the topic.
  • Using various group participation exercises to help everyone feel at ease and comfortable.
  • Creating participatory strategies for imparting information; one hard and fast rule was that resource partners could not lecture or make presentations.
  • Providing a full dinner to everyone – which meant about 60 to 90 people (each parent typically brought at least two children with them).
  • Providing childcare for babies, as well as older kids.
  • Welcoming the few white, middle class parents who showed up at the front door.

The curriculum was definitely not pre-packaged; it was created each week, before the next session and was directly responsive to whatever the larger team was sensing as relevant and important.  Significant time was devoted to debriefing the last session, capturing lessons learned and agreeing on what came next. Time and time again, the team proved that more  and diverse heads are better then one, especially when seeking to connect and empower so many different types of people. The list of topics changed as the program grew and developed, but some of the favorite sessions were:

  • Communicating with Your Child
  • Asking the Right Questions of Staff and Teachers
  • School Structure and Calendar
  • Tips for Supporting Homework
  • Checking the Backpack Pledge and More
  • Common Misunderstandings: Parents and Teachers

The Parent Training Institute became a popular program practically overnight. Within less than a year from the first pilot project, IMPACT expanded the program to four additional schools and added three new schools the next year. Principals started to call IMPACT asking for the parent training program, a very different dynamic than the two year journey to gain a small foothold at Piney Branch E.S.

The Pluses and Minuses of Delivering Direct Services

IMPACT’s original founders understood the challenges of sustaining a community building effort when linked to a direct service platform. The urgency of service delivery demands always trumps the longer term goal of community empowerment and collaborative action. They were intent on creating a more protected environment that permitted an effective and robust community building effort.

However, these original founders did not fully appreciate the challenge of raising funds and staffing a more pure form of community building. The natural evolution of the Parent Training Institute in year five of the organization’s life brought some welcome relief to the organization in these tangible ways:

  • It was easier to recruit people to participate in a loosely formatted parent training session versus a more structured community leadership cohort.
  • Potential funders understood the goal of supporting immigrant parents to get involved in school versus sparking community-driven action across lines of difference.
  • Staff members felt more empowered to plan sessions that taught tangible skills like checking your child’s backpack versus a session to practice speaking up in a meeting or starting an action project.
  • The relatively safety of this direct service project created space for IMPACT staff and parent leaders to build greater trust with school administrators, both at the local school level and the system wide level.
  • The larger flow of diverse parents in and out of the parent program created a bigger base from which to recruit participants for longer term leadership initiatives.
  • Visits to one of the parent training sessions served as a great hook when recruiting new board members and other local partners to the IMPACT table.

But, as is true with many good things in life, the new energy created by the Parent Training Institute also came at a price for the organization:

  • The shear logistics of convening that many parents and children several nights a week, with food and childcare, overtook the staff leaders and active parents, who otherwise would have helped shape a longer term strategy for closing the achievement gap.
  • The goal of delivering an effective training program began usurping the goal of developing parent leaders to raise tough questions and offer alternative ideas for educational equity.
  • Board members and funding partners were enamored with the stories of greater parent involvement; it became even more difficult to capture their attention and devotion to strategies for engaging those with positional power inside the schools.
  • Considerable resources were spent teaching others how to engage and train parents, with no direct payback to the organization. The most frustrating partner was the school system itself – which never paid a dime for the program – but later took much of IMPACT’s approach and curriculum and scaled it up in a way that severely reduced its effectiveness.

Engaging People with Positional Power

Embedded in IMPACT’s self-determination theory of change is the assumption that at least some of the people who already hold positional power within a particular community context will also need to be engaged and supported in a transformation process. In fact, several of IMPACT’s founders enjoyed positional power within the community and due to various experiences, had become aware that their leadership behaviors actually undermined instead of supported a more inclusive community. They held steadfast to the theory that transformation of both those residents at the community table, as well as those residents who felt disempowered, was needed.

InSilver Spring, three distinct groups hold positional power within a local school: administrators, teachers and white middle class parents. As the story of engaging lower income immigrant parents and parents of color unfolded, as described above, there was a parallel story of attempts to engage members in these three groups. Clearly, and for obvious reasons, this quest was much more difficult and proved to be illusive in some categories. But, the initial volunteer team and the staff teams that followed were determined to support those people already at the public school table, some of whom seemed willing to begin opening up the table to others.

The following is a partial list, in a mostly chronological order, of these attempts to engage and support people with positional power:

¬ Training for PTA Presidents – This project was led by a volunteer team of four people: two white parents active in PTAs, one Ethiopian parent, and one activist in the Latino community.  Each of these four people – while engaged in six or seven different public schools inSilver Spring – had experienced PTA leaders coming to them and asking for help in engaging the ethnic community in PTA meetings and events. Each had experienced helping their colleagues recruit new faces of color to PTA meetings and then observing these newcomers feeling excluded, over-whelmed or even alienated when they took a risk and showed up for a PTA meeting.

After considerable discussion, the team agreed that the best intervention they could offer with volunteer resources was to help new PTA presidents learn how to run meetings in a more open and inclusive way.  They met for three months to design a two part training session and to map out a careful recruitment strategy. To their surprise, over 30 PTA officers signed on and participated in the workshops which were chock full of practical strategies for setting up a room, starting with ice-breakers, using small groups to exchange information etc. But, in the weeks that followed, it became clear that the intervention was not enough to break the strong norm of how PTAs meetings are run and that most of the participants were disappointed because they were simply seeking recruitment tips and tricks and were not genuinely open to changing their meetings.

¬ Study Circle Initiative – As mentioned in the beginning of this paper, IMPACT was the lead catalyst for bringing and implementing use of the Study Circle tool in the public school context in both Silver Spring and Montgomery County. On the positive side, the study circle framework of four two hour sessions over a month clearly focused on a specific issue (for example, racial barriers to education) was a fairly easy sell to a mix of diverse participants, especially people with positional power. One pitch often used is that participation in the circle will conclude with a clear action plan for “doing something about race” and not just talking about it. However, over time, IMPACT staff began to notice that two things often happen in the context of a study circle: (1) The eight hours of dialogue about a very complex topic are not enough time to help a group of strangers develop a common path or project to pursue or (2) The relationships formed are not deep and trusting enough to sustain the small and large conflicts that inevitably arise when diverse people set out to accomplish a concrete task or initiative.

For the most part, IMPACT did not stay connected to the Study Circle Initiative after it “scaled up” inside of the school system, flowing from the initial success of the project involving 120 people and a large action forum. However, there were strategic moments along the way where use of the study circle tool proved to be extremely helpful in engaging white parents and teachers. AtPineyBranchElementary School, the location of IMPACT’s primary intervention strategy, study circles were held on multiple occasions and really helped bring in the teachers and white parents, proving powerful when coupled with the Parent Training Institute and a longer term relationship building process supported by IMPACT staff/parent organizers.

¬ Cultivation of School System Officials –  It was only after the decision to pursue educational reform through a collaborative action frame that the original team/staff leaders figured out that our County’s school system was led by a very smart dictator – a leader who used fear and intimidation purposely to help turn a huge system in a new direction.  It was a confusing time. Jerry Weast was still relatively new to town. He put the issues of race and class squarely on the public table.  On one hand, the IMPACT team clearly benefitted from his highly visible profile and campaign, validating the mission behind their grass root efforts.

However, over time, Jerry Weast’s leadership style became an extra large obstacle to work around for three reasons: (1) He believed that community groups of any kind had no legitimate role in the reform process and quietly worked to shut off IMPACT and others from having access to the system. (2) He put the “fear of God” into his Deputies and Principals about every thing, making it very difficult to engage them and build trust, especially with an “outside” group like ours who offered support in changing the internal culture of their operations. (3) He achieved some major short term successes in closing the gap, which clearly impacted the ability to spark action and to convince funders to stick with longer term strategies for deep, systemic change.

Given that our theory of change was based on collaborative action (including people with positional power) and given the huge positional power that principals wield in a school setting, IMPACT had no choice but to keep engaging school officials. On many occasions, the various staff and parent teams reminded themselves that their “friendly persistence” mantra applied equally to white male principals as well as to “hard to reach” African immigrant men, for example. Over time, IMPACT ended up earning a very trusted position with a large number of high level officials and more importantly, developed an extremely open and accountable relationship with the long time principal atPineyBranchElementary School(more on this later). In fact, the irony is that just as Dr. Weast is finally leaving his position in June 2011 and the people with whom IMPACT enjoys trust will have a new opening, the funding for the work in the schools appears to have run dry.

These specific strategies supported the development of trust across lines of positional power:

  • The lead organizers were dogged in making appointment after appointment with a long list of deputies and poured hours into working on their presentations, working to frame IMPACT’s approach into terms they could understand.
  • The team recruited many friendly allies who served as brokers or buffers in the delicate dance of initiating and building a relationship.
  • When possible, parents would participate in meetings and issue personal invitations to these officials for attendance at various events and small meetings.
  • The lead organizers kept an operating principle called “living in two worlds at one time” and also cultivated relationships with school board members. The team understood how to use positional power without burning bridges to the other side. (And, as one indicator of overall success, three parents from the larger IMPACT network – two African American and one Latino – eventually became powerful members of the school board)

¬ White Awareness Workshops –  One strong subset of folks within IMPACT in the early days framed everything inside the banner of Anti-Racism and believed that most of our energies should be focused on helping whites understand the concepts of privilege and become more aware allies for people of color in their pursuit to reform racist systems like public schools. The clear challenge with this emphasis and strategy in a place as seemingly liberal asSilver Spring is that it is nearly impossible to recruit people and inspire their personal transformation inside this frame.

One particularly difficult pilot project was a three part series designed to engage and support white teachers and parents from three nearby schools on their journey to racial awareness. The design and recruitment team were very experienced and talented, but despite great effort, they only recruited ten people and the effort sparked no follow up action or continued relationship building. On a positive note, the original flyer recruiting people to a White Awareness Workshop fell into the hands of a white male councilmember from the area who initially took great offense at the title, misunderstanding it as a pro-white effort. This moment led to several follow up exchanges with him, including giving him some books on white privilege. IMPACT’s relationship with this Council member remains strong six years later and his awareness and support for the work is significant.

¬ Multicultural Skill Support for Teachers – One of the underlying strategies of offering the Parent Training Institute was that it provided a safe vehicle for building trust with both the principal and the teachers. The hope was that this trust would create the opening for offering deeper interventions that could lead to a shift in practices in the classroom and the hallways of the school. Most of those involved in building IMPACT in the Schools believed that the blocks to change in a place likeMontgomeryCounty were based in the way people related to each other inside the four walls of the school and could not be solved by top down policies.

Accordingly, IMPACT cultivated a partner called theMid-AtlanticEquityCenter, a federally funded technical assistance provider which was mandated to increase the cultural competence of teachers and support schools in becoming places where all children can succeed. Not surprisingly, the leaders of this Center were rebuffed early on by Dr. Weast, most likely because he didn’t have structural power over their actions. Somewhat naively, the IMPACT team invited theMid-AtlanticEquityCenterto join in their efforts at internal reform at two schools.

One principal in particular openly acknowledged her struggle to hold young white teachers accountable to teaching effectively across lines of difference and was open to a deeper partnership with the Center. We were well on our way to brokering a long term relationship when the Principal was confronted by angry white parents who felt she was not sufficiently attending to the needs of their students and she lost the ability to proceed. Again, ironically, one of those angry white parents was a long time program officer for a foundation assigned to track IMPACT’s grant.  Her positive relationship with the organization shifted after this indirect encounter.

¬ Door Knocking Projects for PTA Leaders and Teachers –

Throughout the years, IMPACT staff and parent teams developed strategies for engaging hard to reach parents at their door or in their apartment parking lots or in front of the schools when they picked up their kids.  Our success with these strategies prompted requests from around the region for sharing these strategies and teaching others how to do it. After one attempt to work with teams of mostly white PTA parents at a local high school, the team decided that spot training – without helping support a deeper moment of awareness – did not produce positive results.

At one national conference, the IMPACT team learned about a highly successful effort inCaliforniato organize and support teachers in making home visits to students, especially students from families not engaged in the school. This exposure led to an on-going relationship with the California organizers who since came to Silver Spring to introduce the concept and help train a small group of teachers at Piney Branch Elementary School. One especially motivated teacher at Piney Branch embraced the concept and has been running with it every since. IMPACT raised some funds to support paying stipends to the teachers who participate in the first pilot rounds of this initiative. Everyone involved believes this is a very important strategy to couple with parent training and study circles to help ripen a school and get it ready for a deeper reform process.

¬ Use of a Crisis – Guns Traded in a Bathroom at Einstein High School

On April 9, 2008, six boys were conducting a gun sale in the bathroom of Einstein High School (located on the western edge of Silver Spring) and the gun accidently fired, thankfully hurting no one. However, the incident was a major wake up call for the school. That night, at a hurriedly put together parent information session, it was clear that despite the fact that 44 % of the students are Latino and all six of the boys were Latino, virtually no Latino parents are engaged in the school or have any form of an informal parent support system, unlike the white and the African American parents.

IMPACT staff attended the meeting, some as parents and some as supportive community partners. They discovered a room full of empowered, largely white parents battering the principal with questions, as they should have. But, in the dark back corners of the school cafeteria, over 40 Latino parents huddled with each other, many of whom are not bilingual. Several of the school systems’ paid Latino liaisons were dancing on the edges, not sure of their role and operating from a place of fear due to the command and control style of the principal. IMPACT staff, not waiting for anyone’s permission or direction, jumped in and started translating for the parents. They then made a spot decision to hold a meeting that night of these parents, at the end of the formal session.

This spot decision led to nearly a year long effort to organize the Latino parents, re-invigorate a limp after-school program targeted at Latino youth and spark a school-wide collaborative reform process. The team, which included ace organizers Ray Moreno and Rosa Sanchez, succeeded at the first two goals. But after many Friday afternoon meetings with a group school stakeholders – including the Principal –  IMPACT decided to walk away from the school. It was clear that the school was not “ripe for a transformative process”, as the IMPACT team likes to say. As is true with many social entrepreneurs, IMPACT received no funds for over 200 collective hours devoted to this school.

Continued Frustration: Sparking Parent Leadership to Address the Gap

As the Parent Training Institute expanded and spread from 2005 to 2008, IMPACT had less capacity to support parent leadership and initiative in the on-going struggle to close the achievement gap in local schools. This was true even as IMPACT’s base of parents, the stories documenting the gap and their collective power to influence the system grew.

Most of the advocates leading the charge for educational reform inMontgomeryCountywere either highly experienced or educational professionals. They had clearly shaped agendas around issues like tracking or testing or teacher development. Yet, they were few in number and tended to be largely middle class, comprised only of white and black liberals. From time and time, these advocates would meet with the IMPACT team or visit the Parent Training Institute, begging people to come testify about a complex budget or policy issue. IMPACT staff worked hard to break down these complexities into manageable chunks. But, for the most part, these opportunities did not resonate with the parents active in the IMPACT network who were consumed with making it day to day, raising children and living as new immigrants on low wages in a new environment.

Magic Ingredients for Parent Leadership: Mutual Support, Personal Empowerment and Small Actions

During the summer of 2007,the IMPACT team went into the next round of action research and scanning for innovative practices around the country. They worked with a group of ten active parents to organize an event to help other immigrant parents manage a very difficult moment in the life of the school year – the formal visit to the new teacher and classroom always held on the afternoon before the first day of school. IMPACT staff were extra careful to step out of the way, creating the space for the parents to experience what it is like to plan and execute a project. The event was a success: approximately 30 families of both Latino and East African heritage gathered over pizza and made family profile folders with poloraid pictures, markers, and prompts about family culture. The families took these folders with them to use as a conversation device the next day when greeting the new teacher. At the end of the event, the parent leaders felt great and wanted to keep meeting as a team.

Around the same time, IMPACT staff visited two similar community building efforts, one inChicagocalled the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and one inOakland,Californiacalled TEAMS.  The group inChicagoalso believed in pursuing a long term strategy of shifting the internal cultures of schools and was further along in developing a continuum of programmatic devices to keep parents engaged and build bridges with local schools. Judith Rosenberg, the founder of TEAMS, introduced IMPACT to her concept of a Support Action Team, in which she blends the power of mutual support, with small incremental community action as a team. (Judith eventually spent a week inSilver Springtraining staff and parent leaders on her model, a tool that IMPACT later infused throughout all of their work).

Feeling more positive and clear about how to proceed, the IMPACT team decided to pilot a nine month parent leadership cohort, building on the core parents who led the summer project and their findings from fellow school organizers around the country.  The team knew they faced several uphill and unique challenges:

  • The extreme diversity of the cohort, which included four very distinct culture and language groups.
  • The magnitude of the time commitment – twice a month meetings for nine months.
  • The fact that none of the local school partners – all of whom loved the parent training institute – were in active support of the leadership project.
  • The continued illusive quality of “the achievement gap issue” when presented in the context of a wealthy school district with nice looking school buildings.

Kimberly Rattley, a long time friend and organizational development consultant, joined the team and brought a needed skill and expertise in helping individuals feel empowered and in connecting their unique powers across lines of difference. She also helped the team increase their skill in facilitating a room and making it feel safe and inviting for all to participate. Together, they implemented Judith’s mutual support tool and included it at every session.

All of these ingredients started coming together. The concrete mutual support brought people back to each meeting, even though they made many sacrifices to keep the time commitment. Participants began to see direct improvement in their daily work and family lives as they experienced a feeling of greater personal power. In terms of shared leadership and action, they decided to work to provide something they needed the most – daily help in supporting their children with homework.  Over the course of several weeks, the parent leadership team initiated a parent-led homework program (using IMPACT’s offices at night); they placed ads in the newspapers and on line, in search of local college students to volunteer their services as tutors more knowledgeable than the parents. After tutors were selected and on board, the parents divided up the duties of setting up and closing down the sessions, childcare for younger children and picking up food/drink. This busy group of lower income, immigrant parents kept at it and kept the program running for about four months, until the end of the school year.

Stuck Between Conflicting Narratives of Misunderstanding and Disrespect

As the first year of the Parent Leadership Program came to a close, the IMPACT team felt positive about the personal transformation of each participant and their ability as a team to create an inclusive, safe and compelling environment for diverse people struggling with daily life. Clearly, this form of a long term cohort was impactful, if only it could be connected to and woven in with other similar moments of transformation inside the local school.

However, it was hard to ignore the discordant sounds ringing in their heads as community organizers and intermediaries.  At this stage of the journey, several of the IMPACT team enjoyed relationships of trust with a wide range of stakeholders, both insidePineyBranchElementary Schooland the wider system. For example, on any given day, Ray Moreno, now the Director of IMPACT in the Schools, could hold five in-depth conversations that would typically flow like this. (Imagine that he is standing in the school lobby with donuts and coffee welcoming parents and encouraging them to attend a special info session that night).

Narrative One: One of the active immigrant parents working along side him might describe a recent moment in which she tried to reach out to a teacher for help with her son, but felt dismissed and defeated because the teacher did not understand her dilemma nor take the time to dig deeper when she tried to explain.

Narrative Two: As he calls over the Principal and mentions the continued disconnect between parent and teacher, the Principal discloses his frustration with a recent encounter with PTA leaders when they presented a list of “demands”, all of which require substantial time and effort and all of which relate to creating benefits for the upper middle class students.

Narrative Three: As the Principal walks away, in walks one of the active PTA leaders who proudly tells Ray about how she has been working with two parents who do not have legal status and she drives them to appointments, helping them understand all of the intricacies of the citizenship process. She then admits that she was really disappointed that neither woman came to the PTA planning meeting on the topic of “after school activities” She had really  encouraged them to attend and did not understand why they did not come.

Narrative Four: A few moments later, a teacher walks by whom the Team has been trying to recruit for a pilot home visit project.  Ray snags her for a brief moment and she begins a long, familiar rant about how all the teachers feel over worked and unappreciated. She acknowledges that the home visit project is a good idea in theory, but believes Ray and his team should devote all of their attention to helping parents pay attention to homework and other requests from the teachers.

Narrative Five: Just as he is packing up his car with the coffee and donut supplies, one of the school board members drives up to attend a press conference announcing a slight bump in math test scores. The school board member expresses her frustration that no immigrant parents attended the previous night’s budget hearing on whether to fund parent outreach workers for each school, an initiative she proposed.

Converting Pain into Gain: Two New Bursts of Energy and One Tough Decision

a. First Burst of Energy – Putting Individual Transformation First: Parent Educators Program

After two years of running the Parent Leadership Program, the nine month cohort of diverse parents described above, IMPACT staff came to the conclusion that the framework needed to be more directly responsive to the demands of the parents. Yes, both cohorts of parents in year one and year two had accomplished concrete steps as a collective group. But, in a moment of real honesty, staff members realized that the most significant impact had been realized through the transformation of individuals and helping them get on a better path toward economic empowerment. The list of parents who returned to community college or secured a certificate in a specific trade, while participating in the cohort, was substantial and growing. Staff made a couple of other observations:

  • Parents needed more time inside the school building in order to more fully understand the complexities of the achievement gap.
  • A key part of the transformation process is taking small steps with success and repeating these steps over and over until a new level of confidence kicks in.
  • Parents want to be part of an on-going mutual support group.

The team organized a second trip to Chicago and Logan Square Neighborhood Associates to take a closer look at their core program that places parents inside school classes working as partners to teachers – one on one. This time they were successful in bringing along some key stakeholders: two funder/partners (one of whom happened to be a former principal), a parent leader from the Silver Spring Loves Teachers report, a school board member and a school board staff member. This diverse team came back convinced that IMPACT should replicate this program.

It was impossible to imagine the school system partnering in this much deeper way. But, the funder/partner who went on the trip was Commonweal Foundation and they operate an after school literacy and math program in multiple sites. They hire public school teachers and aides to run these programs, mostly in schools or in apartment communities surrounding schools. The Commonweal Foundation staff members were so taken with the model they witnessed inChicagothat they offered to place “IMPACT parents” in after school programs and to provide training and support to these parents around teaching methods.

Thus, a beautiful partnership was formed in theChicagoairport, one that lasted for three years and deeply touched over ____ parents and ___teachers/aides. A very special parent leader from the Silver Spring Loves Teacher Report, Sara Mussie, stepped up to run this program. She had been on the team since the early days of the Parent Training Institute and tells a powerful story about waking up to the importance of her involvement in the school and her children’s education.  She embodies that “impact way” of creating spaces where people feel welcomed, safe and empowered. Kimberly Rattley continued to support her and together, with others, they built a different kind of leadership development program, one that focused on concrete skills of immediate benefit for both parents and teachers. Parents still committed nine months, but spent half the time working in the after-school program.  The stipend they were provided felt like a small salary and opened up a whole new world of work options. Parents also learned how to support their children and other children with math and reading. They grew more comfortable “hanging out in the school”.

In turn, the teachers felt supported and developed close relationships with parents who were there for a broader purpose – to help a diverse group of students. This environment supported a more natural development of relationships and exchange of ideas and strategies for prompting greater learning.

b. Second Burst of Energy – Silver Spring Loves Teachers Campaign and A Call to Action

After enduring the pain embedded in hundreds of the conversations portrayed  in the five narratives set forth above, the IMPACT team got honest with itself and with their parent partners. It was time to put all of this energy and information to work for deeper systemic reform.

The staff team tested out three related theories in a series of meetings with active parent members and stakeholders.

  • Theory One: The primary block to a more equitable learning environment,  inside the four walls of a school, was teacher behavior. For lots of complex reasons, many teachers are not skilled at interacting with and motivating children with backgrounds different than their own.
  • Theory Two: The best way to spark new teacher skill and behavior is through greater relationships of trust with diverse families, both children and families. Until everyone involved begins feeling connected, safe and exchanging the kind of information needed, teachers do not know how to and are not motivated to shift teaching practices and behaviors.
  • Theory Three:  The best way to support on-going formation of relationships of trusts across lines of difference is to ensure that the internal culture of the school is open and actively encourages formation of diverse, trusting relationships….not just in diversity workshops and study circles….but in all of the little and big moments that make up a culture and a functioning institution.

Time and time again, these theories rang true with the parent leaders and stakeholders. But, the IMPACT staff team thought to themselves: how can we put the issue of teacher behavior on the table in a way that can be heard and accepted, especially coming from a bunch of parents and organizers not grounded in educational theory? It occurred to them that of course, there are some teachers who exemplify the type of person who does build trusting relationships and uses these relationships to learn, grow and adjust behaviors beyond the relationship. The parents have encountered a few teachers like this and yearn for more.

Relying on a tool called Appreciative Inquiry, the IMPACT team proposed to the newly recruited Parent Leadership participants that they embark on a quest to define a successful multicultural teacher inSilver Spring. Over a period of three months, a diverse team of six parents and several IMPACT staff interviewed over 60 teachers, parents and youth asking them each the same question: Based on your experience, what are the qualities and practices of a successful multicultural teacher?

The team, inspired by the stories uncovered, devoted significant time developing their recommendations and expressing them in a nicely produced report they called Silver Spring Loves Teachers. The process clearly uncovered the next burst of authentic demand and empowered the IMPACT staff team to suggest that the picture of a successful multicultural teacher be coupled with a call for action. In this Call to Action, the staff team identified a specific long term strategy for helping a single school begin to shift its culture to support trusting relationships and new teacher behavior. To put forth this call to action, the parents decided to organize a Silver Spring Loves Teacher Community Walk, culminating with a presentation of the report to several school board members in front of the PineyBranchElementary School.  

c.  One Tough Decision – Closing the Parent Training Institute

As was mentioned earlier, operating the Parent Training Institute brought tremendous visibility and energy to the organization, but it also served as a huge distraction from the underlying vision of change. During the same time period that the Parent Educator Program was birthed and the Silver Spring Loves Teacher Report was released, IMPACT made the hard decision to temporarily suspend the program in order to more vigorously pursue the goal of helping transform the internal culture of a local school. Those who participated in this decision recognized the importance of this tool in the on-going puzzle of school reform, but were forced to re-direct the very limited resources available to a long awaited moment of opportunity to spark deeper reform.

The Powerful Call for Action – Thriving Multicultural Schools

Picture this scene in early Fall 2008: About 100 diverse parents and children are marching down Philadelphia Avenue – a major thoroughfare in the East Silver Spring and Takoma Park community –  with signs that say – We Love Teachers! Close the Gap! Parents and Teachers Are Partners! As they turn the corner downMaple Aveand have the school in site, they can see a group of smiling teachers, administrators and other school staff waving and waiting for them to arrive. As the crowd approaches, two school board members arrive and wave and share hugs. A small party ensues with apples and popsicles for everyone.

After a short while, the parents and IMPACT team members step up to a mega phone and present the Silver Spring Loves Teachers Report to the staff and school board members. They call upon all assembled to participate in a year long process to shift the culture inside the school to one that fully embraces and supports all children and all families.  At that moment, everyone standing there agreed with the Call to Action and felt supported in moving forward into collaborative action.

After this beautiful scene, it took one full additional year to convene a very diverse group of twelve parents, teachers and administrators at a kick off retreat in Fall 2009 for the official nine month cohort known as The Piney Branch Action Team.  The team included four teachers, two administrators, and eight parents. And there was great team diversity along lines of race, class and culture.

It is difficult to explain why one full year passed after the community walk and the call for action, but it had a lot to do with continued low level resistance and fear inside the system (both at the school and inside MCPS) as well as staff fatigue and transition at IMPACT. Nearly 6 years had passed since that first year and that first grant to support a similar process in the same school.  Four triggers made it happen:

The IMPACT team almost gave up after a particularly bad recruitment meeting in June 2009, and used the pain of this moment to garner new energy.

A newer staff member, Lanita Whitehurst, caught the spirit of the project and stepped in to provide skilled project management skill.

A long time, white male teacher committed to participate, as well as the  principal and his assistant principal (a white female).

A new Area Community Superintendent for theSilver Springschools was selected and she injected a fresh dose of leadership approval and enthusiasm.

The goal is to support a local school (PineyBranchElementary School) in undertaking a bottom up cultural shift sparked by the creation of an action team comprised of diverse parents, teachers and administrators. The theory is that the team would begin to achieve this cultural shift by :

  • Developing a vision of what a thriving multicultural school looks like and designing and implementing projects to support the vision
  • Modeling a new way of power sharing among diverse stakeholders.

A project design and facilitation team, which included two professionals in the area of human development, held more than 60 conversations and one on one meetings to secure participation and create a framework. A three pronged strategy for transformation was implemented:

1)    Personal Power: Transforming the way people view themselves

2)   RelationshipBuilding: Transforming the way people view and relate to others.

3)    Action Implementation: Transforming what people are moved and empowered to do.

As of the writing of this document, the Piney Branch Action Team has been meeting bi-weekly for nearly two years and completed six major action projects, all of which led to new power sharing rituals within the school culture and were implemented in a way that modeled power sharing practices to use going forward. It is widely agreed that this initiative is leading to long term cultural shifts inside the school.  A full report on the Piney Branch Action Team is available upon request.


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