In a small Newark, New Jersey, public school classroom, 12 dedicated parents spend their evenings learning how to become school leaders. The parents aren't striving to become principals or administrators; instead, they are working towards becoming policy-change leaders who understand how the democratic system works, how it can be altered—and how to guide their peers to action. In a city where only 50 percent of its young citizens graduate from high school, this kind of education reform may be its last hope for the future.
"We believe this is a crisis," says Shavar Jeffries, the board chair of iReform, a nonprofit that seeks to educate parents on how to break the cycle of failure. "I'm organizing parents at the macro level to fight for policy changes like demanding new school models and closing schools that persistently fail."
A child of color with no high school diploma? This is genocide for you and your child.
Shavar's organization is less than a year old, yet he has a team of people pounding on doors, attending PTA meetings and showing up at housing association gatherings and church services to get the word out about iReform. At the meetings, reformers are empowering parents and urging them to stop looking the other way when it comes to their child's education. "We're just getting started, but the first step is really ensuring parents understand and grasp the nature of this challenge and what it means for children," Jeffries says. "A child of color with no high school diploma? This is genocide for you and your child."
Jeffries, a law professor at Seton Hall University, decided to found iReform soon after he was elected to the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board in April 2010. Over the last two years, he has drawn some fire as a pro-charter official with strong opinions on teacher unions and principals with political connections. He says it is precisely those heady politics that made him realize education reform might be confusing and overwhelming for parents to navigate.
"When I ran for office and when I was elected, I was trying to push for change in the context of democratic politics," says Jeffries, who grew up socioeconomically disadvantaged in Newark. "Parents in places like Newark are poorly situated on every domain of political influence because they don't have much disposable income or time. But the bottom line is, public schools in America are politically accountable institutions. Interest groups can mobilize votes."
That is why Jeffries and his iReform team are paying parents a stipend to attend their first Parent Academy, which is running now for eight weeks. During this time, parents (a broad mix from local district and charter schools) are meeting with legislative leaders, lobbyists and others who will give them an education in policy change. "We're teaching parents everything from how we got to this space to some of the current issues of school reform, and we're holding sessions on advocacy," Jeffries says. "We are teaching these parents how to speak up at board meetings and how to write letters to stake holders."
This is, he hopes, a springboard for a grassroots movement that will finally give Newark's children a chance to succeed. "The great majority of parents want change," he says. "We’re going to tap into that."