Community groups make a difference at Funston

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The morning of April 11, two dozen parents, mostly women homemakers, drop their children off in classrooms at Funston School and walk down the hall of a brand-new annex to a spacious conference room, where coffee, French bread and election pamphlets await them.

It’s time for the local school council candidates’ forum. The election for parent members is contested, with eight parents vying for six seats, but there is no controversy. Indeed, as each candidate concludes her remarks, she wishes her competitors good luck.

“Ever since my children started school, I’ve been really involved here at Funston,” Nereida Cotto, a petite, outgoing woman, says through a translator. “It’s important to keep an eye on things at the school. I know it’s hard to take care of your kids and get involved, too, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Elvira Munguia, a shy, soft-talking woman, says she has “grown immensely” from her volunteer work at Funston.

Speaking in English, Debra Gillespie says, “I want to bring good things to the kids—to let all children know we love and care about them.” She finishes her brief speech by saying, “I have the time, and I’m willing to work very hard.” Principal Sally Acker flashes an appreciative smile.

With bilingual program coordinator Amanda Rivera translating, the meeting lasts less than an hour. Many women linger to share coffee and conversation with each other and with community-organization workers who have come to observe.

Organizers welcome

Community organizations are a welcome presence at Funston, which serves some 930 children in the largely Hispanic Logan Park neighborhood. Staff at the school credit the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), a large, well-established group, and the Center for Community Leadership and Development (CCLD), a relative newcomer, with creating a climate of trust and, in effect, a farm system for LSC candidates.

In the first election, in 1989, says Acker, “There were parents coming in to run for the LSC who I didn’t know, parents not real active in the school. People thought at first they could just come in and tell teachers what to do.” Thanks to LSNA and CCLD training since then, she says, “We’re getting more positive people. They know they have to be committed to their position because of the long hours and the importance of the decisions being made.”

This year, LSNA received a $5,000 grant from the School Reform Board to recruit and prepare candidates and help turn out the vote at Funston and eight other schools. It mailed notices. It conducted several one-hour training sessions for potential LSC members, telling them about their rights and responsibilities, and a longer seminar for declared candidates. LSNA also helped candidates create campaign leaflets.

Just as Funston is a year-round school, LSNA is a year-round partner.

The organization’s Parent/Teacher Mentor Program gives parents eight hours of training in a variety of school-aide functions and then pays them $5 an hour to work at local public schools for up to 100 hours each semester. With increased confidence in their own abilities, many of the program’s graduates run for LSCs, says Amanda Rivera.

LSNA’s Parent-to-Parent Program is helping Funston create an after-hours community center, managed by parents, that offers literacy, GED and other programs for children and adults. Malcolm X College provides the adult-education instructors. “We know because of this program that they’ll go home and try to practice the skills and methodologies they see modeled here,” says Rivera.

LSNA also lends advocacy expertise. For example, when the School Board tried to renege on a promise to build a new middle school to relieve overcrowding, LSNA helped organize the four school communities that would have continued to suffer. They won; construction is scheduled to begin in July.

In addition to its education programs, LSNA organizes residents for community policing, works to maintain local parks, provides low-cost housing options (some aimed at teachers at local schools), coordinates youth services and tries to solve other problems that members bring to its attention; for example, it helped get some sidewalk mailboxes moved to safer areas.

“When we need LSNA to help, they do,” says Rita Reveron, a member of LSNA’s education committee and mother of three students in local schools.

Last year, the organization drew 500 delegates to its 33rd annual congress, which adopted 10 continuing resolutions, including three dealing with schools.

The Center for Community Leadership and Development is much smaller and used its $6,000 School Reform Board grant to help with leadership development for LSCs at Funston and three nearby schools. “The board requires 18 hours of training for LSC members, and they usually put a thousand people into an auditorium for three or four hours,” says Executive Director Raphael Morales. “We provide smaller groups that are more open to questions.”

Both Acker and Rivera say that a successful LSC election requires some action from the School Board itself, including materials, guidance and a public-awareness campaign; both say the Reform Board started too late. Ultimately, though, community groups have the most influence, they say. “One board member even came and distributed 20 applications,” Acker notes, “but none of the 20 candidates materialized.”

The winners are …

Even the vote totals at Funston reflected the one-for-all and all-for-one attitude at the school. Votes for each of the six parent winners ranged from a high of 103 to a low of 68. The seventh-place finisher trailed by only three votes.

While the electorate did not have a strong preference, it did pick the candidates with the most experience, including three incumbents, and the most visibility. For example, newcomer Elvira Munguia, a winner, handed out dozens of leaflets while Ramona Nazario, who lost, only spoke at the forum.

“I’m glad we had a contested election,” says Amanda Rivera, explaining that the runners-up can be easily tapped if a vacancy arises.

Faculty members who voted in an advisory referendum, which is tantamount to election, also opted for experience. The two incumbents, both veteran teachers who spoke to many issues, easily bested a Funston newcomer who zeroed in on bilingual education. Rivera, a member of the council since 1989, is one of those re-elected incumbents.

Community representatives Norberto Paredes and Jane Thomas, both long-time community residents, were re-elected without opposition. (Earlier this year, Paredes also was elected to the Local School Council Advisory Board, which was created by state law to advise the School Reform Board.) Both gave speeches anyway at the candidates’ forum.

Thomas talked about her 25-year involvement with Funston, first as a mother and then as a grandmother. Raising his arms above his head, Paredes said, “You know, things don’t fall from the sky. This council has worked very hard.”