A parent who keeps pushing

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Lots of things troubled Pamela Price during the first blush of school reform. The first chairman of the local school council (LSC) at what is now Piccolo Specialty School, Price was concerned about low-performing students, the decrepit building and the rancor that existed between Principal Linda Sienkiewicz and James Stewart, head of the newly split-off middle school.

But she fretted most about the lack of parent involvement. “I was living at the school morning and night,” recalls the mother of three. “There I’d be on school property, sometimes with a bullhorn. I’d shout out announcements to parents on the playground: ‘Could you come in and spend an hour with us?’ They’d come, but only a few of them.”

In time, Price isolated what she felt was the problem. “Parents were made to feel they weren’t welcome,” she says. She went before the LSC and suggested that teachers call parents with good news, instead of the bad news they typically related. Still, there was no response from families. “We were 1,000 kids and a couple parents,” she says.

“Finally somebody told me that the parents were at home with their kids, watching soap operas,” recollects Price. “So we borrowed a television set, with Ms. Sienkiewicz’s approval, and bought some refreshments.” Fliers went home, and one noontime in 1991, 47 people showed up to watch “All My Children” in a closet-sized room off the main hall.

After the program finished, Price addressed the assembled. “We have shared decision-making now,” she said.

“We can have a voice.”

No reform manual contained the soap-opera method of fostering parent involvement, but it worked. Such incidents turned Price, a single mom with a high school education, into a neighborhood activist, then a reform-group advocate and currently a troubleshooter with the Board of Education. “When reform started, I was a single parent who had gone through a bad divorce,” says Price, now in her late 30s. “I didn’t think I could make my life better, but reform gave me the push to fulfill myself.”

In 1989, Price was new to the Piccolo neighborhood. When she enrolled her older two children at the school, she says, “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The place was up for grabs. There was no structure. People said that this was a dumping ground for teachers who couldn’t get jobs anywhere else. It was like we were in a prehistoric age.”

Elected to the LSC against opposition from PTA candidates, Price emerged as council chair. Her first coup was to ensure the hiring of Sienkiewicz over the acting principal. “Of all the candidates, she voiced a love of children,” she says. “None of the other candidates even mentioned the kids.”

Price would get along well with Sienkiewicz, but not with Stewart, whose middle school LSC she later joined. Stewart says he viewed Price as involved in a “power grab” to control state and federal poverty money his LSC was allotted. He also says he didn’t want parents led by Price “coming in and lollygagging around—or tutoring youngsters unless they passed a test. I had standards.”

As the academic year 1993 came to a close, Price, who feels “it takes the community and parents to help our kids,” vigorously opposed the renewal of Stewart’s contract. Losing that battle, she left the middle school council and took a community position on the Orr High School LSC. There, too, she was disappointed; after two years, she couldn’t see the school improving enough to serve Renee, her high school-bound daughter.

‘All My Children’

It was in raising parental support at Piccolo that Price felt she excelled. “All My Children” sessions turned into the so-called Tutorial Brigade, a group of more than 60 parents who helped children complete their homework, though Sienkiewicz says the corps numbered no more than 20 regulars. “Pam got everyone exited about volunteering,” says Markee Washington, who first met Price when he brought his nephew to Piccolo and is now a bus aide at Piccolo.

After being invited down to the Walnut Room at Marshall Field’s one Christmas—a first visit for the native Chicagoan—Price wrote to 500 merchants for donations that would duplicate the experience for Piccolo’s youngsters. The result was a yearly extravaganza mounted in the school gym, with old displays from Field’s, a live tree, a Santa Claus (a teacher in disguise) and two gifts for every child. Price also marshaled volunteers to paint the school office and bucked for repairs to the building, valued at $774,000 back then.

“Pam would call us up for support and guidance when she was at Piccolo,” says Joy Noven, co-founder of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), a parent-run advocacy group. “The thing she seemed proud of was that blacks and Latinos were in the neighborhood, and she’d brought everyone together.” In 1993, Price went to work part-time for the organization, advising people how to run for the LSCs and assisting at training workshops.

In 1995, Price gave up her LSC seats and went to work as a facilitator in the School Board’s Office of School and Community Relations. Today she fields LSC questions, helps settle disputes and assists in training for Region 3, which covers 105 schools on the Near South and West sides. “If you’ve served on a council, you have a different level of sensitivity,” remarks James Deanes, the office’s director and Price’s superior. “Pam comes at this from the community and the parents’ point of view—it’s ideal.”

Yet she has received criticism from activists for “selling out”—joining the board, the enemy. “I’ve heard people say that,” replies Price. “And I’ll tell you, I used to go to meetings at the board, and I never saw me—a parent—sitting at the table. Now I’m at the table.” Sienkiewicz is proud of Price: “I remember when I first interviewed for principal [in 1990]. I was surprised that there was Pam, a parent who seemed to be so concerned for the entire school. Now she’s thinking about the whole city, or at least a large part of it.”

Price’s children are gone from Piccolo: Renee, now 18, is a senior at Steinmetz High School; Julian, 16, attends a military boarding school; and Chris, 11, is a 7th-grader at Agassiz School.

Few show up

At Piccolo, parent participation has dried up. There’s no PTA, and Sienkiewicz says that welfare reform, which forces recipients back to work, has reduced the number of parents taking low-paying aide positions.

The LSC sometimes lacks a quorum, but is united in its mission, says Chair David Irizarry: “We have good people involved, and we’ve started seeing eye to eye.” As evidence of LSC unity, Irizarry points to the unanimous vote in 1998 to renew Sienkiewicz’s contract.

Price has come to believe that parents are seminal to school turnarounds and that involvement can lead them to master their own destinies. “People used to think, how could parents who hadn’t graduated elementary school read a budget?” she says. “We fooled ’em. We can read a budget better than some folks down at the board. Parents have branched out, to become precinct captains or candidates for aldermen. Reform has given parents the push to do something with their lives.”