After parents rejected a bid by Edison Schools, Inc. to run five failing public schools in New York City, Reuters reported in early July that the nation’s largest school management company was hoping to learn a better grassroots approach from its new acquisition partner, LearnNow, Inc., which has a record of encouraging community participation.
Yet the success of community efforts in San Francisco to keep the Edison company running a public school in that city indicates it is parents, not company executives, who must recognize how effective their grassroots efforts are in the struggle to advance school choice.
It’s no secret that recent examples of education reform have been met with determined opposition, primarily from the teacher unions. Opponents of reform have found it relatively easy to convince parents that embracing change is even riskier than keeping their children in a failing school environment. That wasn’t the case with the group Parents to Save Edison Charter, whose determined efforts silenced the critics and ultimately saved their charter school.
The leaders of Parents to Save Edison Charter–Linda Gausman, Lupe Hernandez, and Heather Mobley–believe there are several lessons to be drawn from their battle with the school board.
The first is that by being proactive and taking the initiative, parents were able to control the terms of the debate. That kept the school board on the defensive and blunted its attack on the charter school.
Perhaps the most powerful lesson learned was that vocal support from parents can virtually shut down the normally vocal opposition of teacher unions to any change to the traditional model of public school management.
“The unions were silent because they were fearful of taking on something that had made parents so happy,” said Gausman. “The school board expected their natural allies to rush to their aid, but they didn’t, because they would not publicly stand up against a unified group of parents.”
In 1998, management of the school–then known as Thomas Edison Elementary and one of the worst schools in the San Francisco Unified School District–was handed over to Edison Schools under a five-year charter contract. In short order, Edison turned the school around with improvements that included renovations, wiring for the Internet, a rigorous curriculum, an extended school day, new art and music programs, and higher pay for teachers.
Within three years, test scores improved dramatically. Between the 1999 and 2000 school years, African-American and Hispanic students at the school posted some of the highest average gains in the state for SAT 9 test scores. Compared to a district-wide improvement in test scores of only 3 percent, Hispanic students at Edison improved by 15 percent and African-American students by 25 percent. Parents were very satisfied with the education their children were receiving.
But on March 27, after gaining a pro-union majority in the November 2000 election, the San Francisco School Board declared its intention to revoke the charter contract with Edison and return the school to district management.
Feeling betrayed, a group of parents decided to fight the revocation and launched an aggressive campaign to “stop the district’s power grab,” as they called it. They quickly formed Parents to Save Edison Charter, created a Web site at www.edisonaction.org, and mobilized community support.
“At first, we weren’t sure exactly what we were doing,” admitted Hernandez, a mother of two Edison students. “All we knew is that we were not going to let the board take our children and place them back into a failing system.”
Many parents, initially believing the school board to be misinformed, attended public school board meetings to tell the board about the school’s success stories, but they were constantly rebuffed. While acknowledging school improvements, school board members openly told the press and the public they were “philosophically opposed to for-profit education.” At one meeting, School Board President Jill Wynns read a newspaper while one of the parents urged her not to revoke the charter.
“It was obvious at that point that they had their minds made up,” stated Gausman, mother of an Edison third-grader. “Our children were their last concern, and we knew that we had a fight on our hands.”
On the Offensive
The parents then went on the offensive, deciding to organize a public march on the school board to demonstrate broad support for the Edison school before June 27, when the school board planned on voting to revoke the charter. In mid-April, the parents initiated a petition drive to ask the school board to renew Edison’s charter, aiming to get signatures from every teacher and every parent with a child at the school.
“Here was a school board that knew they were going to return our children to the failing district,” said Mobley, mother of two Edison children. “We wanted to get them on record as being obstructionists by watching them defy the wishes of every parent and teacher at the school.”
Parents to Save Edison Charter quickly garnered 98 percent of the teachers’ signatures on the petition but found that contacting every charter school parent was more difficult, since many children were bused in from remote parts of the city. Newsletters were sent home with students and dozens of parents organized outreach programs and phone banks. By late April, over 80 percent of Edison parents had signed the petition.
Preparations then turned to planning the march, scheduled for June 5 to provide time for three weeks of aggressive campaigning before the board vote on June 27. Money raised from community supporters funded banners, posters, and red t-shirts with the slogan, “Our Children, Our Choice.” The three Edison mothers –Gausman, Hernandez, and Mobley–all articulate and passionate, served as spokeswomen for the group.
More than 300 parents, teachers, and supporters assembled at San Francisco’s Civic Center on June 5. As hundreds of politically inexperienced parents began their march through the city to School District headquarters, they were transformed into militant activists, fighting for their children’s futures. They chanted, “We’re angry with the Board . . . We will not be ignored,” and their signature slogan, “Our Children, Our Choice.”
“President Wynns, it is time for you to let our children go!” cried Hernandez as she and Gausman led the crowd into the school board meeting. After presenting the stack of petitions to an obviously stunned Wynns, dozens of supporters and parents provided impromptu testimony to the school board.
“I don’t know if this school board knew what hit them,” stated Gausman.
Victory at Last
Over the next two weeks, board members were hit with a coordinated campaign of emails, faxes, and letters in support of the charter school. The break came on June 21 with news that the board was negotiating with Edison to keep the school in place.
On June 28, the San Francisco School Board voted to transfer sponsorship of the school to the California State Board of Education, an action the state board approved on July 12.
“Standing up for our children allowed us to take back our school-and our children,” said Gausman, beaming with pride.
Gary Larson, a resident of San Francisco, was the advisor to Parents to Save Edison Charter. His email address is [email protected].