Q&A with Stand for Children grassroots organizers

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Many in Illinois know Stand for Children as the group behind a recent attempt to restrict teachers unions’ strike and bargaining rights. The Chicago Teachers Union and others have blasted the group as a “billionaire gang” out to gut public education.

But this perception of the group could not be farther from the way it began, with a 1999 campaign to reinstate city mental health services for children in Salem, Ore. In its first three years, the group’s Salem-Keizer chapter secured funding for an after-school program at a low-income elementary school; organized 50 volunteer dentists to provide students with emergency care out of vans; and persuaded the local school district to allow students to take seconds at lunch. Much of the group’s activity in Oregon has focused on increasing education funding – including class-size reduction and money for art, music, and physical education classes.

With a new Stand for Children statewide affiliate setting up shop in Illinois, Catalyst Chicago Associate Editor Rebecca Harris interviewed Salem-Keizer Chapter Chair Ellen Keithley (a volunteer) and the chapter’s staff organizer, Holly Fifield, about the organization’s work and the challenges that have come with growth.

Q: Why did you get involved in Stand for Children, and what are your roles in the chapter?

Keithley: I was taking a sociology course and started this as practicum during the election season three years ago. I quickly became very involved as a volunteer. Our chapter is organized into teams based on neighborhoods or religious affiliation. I became a team leader; then, in July, I became a chapter chair. For me, it was the citizen involvement, the participatory democracy… being actively involved at a grassroots level.

Holly is our link with the statewide network, and statewide issues. There are also local issues – something a parent, teacher or community member notices that they think needs to be addressed or changed. That comes to our strategy team, and as a chapter we decide what to do about it.

Fifield: I graduated two years ago with my master’s degree in teaching. Stand for Children meshed my two worlds – love of advocacy, and love of education.

Q: What is your vision for education reform?

Keithley: We want excellent teachers who are supported, who are given some freedom in the classroom. We want excellent administrators who know what it is to teach and how to hire appropriate instructors. We want the curriculum to reach a level of excellence. We want community involvement – which is a reform idea.

Less focus on standardized tests [and] a more meaningful curriculum for the students–those priorities are a direct effect of our grassroots. It comes from the parents whose kids are in school, and they say, “We want this for our child.”

Fifield: We know there are a lot of excellent teachers out there. They are not supported. It’s their work environment that needs to be reformed. Their professional development may be lacking; the administration may be lacking.

And especially at the local level, things like nutrition have bubbled up from active Stand for Children leaders. They knew that if kids are being fed cinnamon rolls and punch at breakfast, it’s going to be more difficult for them to focus in the classroom.

Q: What specific education policies would you like to see changed in your state?

Fifield: A couple years ago, we got the teacher mentoring legislation through. It made sure every first- and second-year teacher has a mentor. We realized a large percentage of our teachers were leaving the profession in the first three years. Now, we’ve expanded it to include first- and second-year principals, as well.

We’re also working on standardized testing… [perhaps] limiting the number of times students can take the state tests. Because in Oregon, we have standardized tests that kids can take three times a year. There’s a lot of prep that goes into these tests, and a lot of time to take it. If kids have passed the test, they shouldn’t be made to re-take it just to better the scores and bring up the average. With a classroom of 30, ten of them might get done early, and they don’t get to learn anything new. Usually teachers don’t have the coverage to leave ten kids who’ve passed in the classroom while the others take the test again.

Q: What about teacher quality?

Keithley: One of the things we wanted to look at was including parent feedback as a part of the teacher’s evaluation. Value-added [evaluation of teachers’ performance] would be the best-case scenario.

Fifield: It can’t just be test scores. We need to be looking at student portfolios. It’s the same for principals, too – we want to see the same kind of evaluations.

Q: How is your relationship with teachers’ unions?

Keithley: We do have a working relationship with the unions. We have meetings with them. The union was instrumental in helping us pass the largest school funding bond in state history.

We absolutely don’t see eye to eye on everything. It makes us stronger to say that we are not in lockstep with any entity. We represent the community.

Fifield: Funding, we do see eye-to-eye on. In the first couple years we were really considered to be in bed with the unions, because a lot of the things we did were funding-related. But now that we’re starting to meddle more in education reform, teacher effectiveness, there’s a little bit more pushback.

Q: Why did Stand for Children start here?

Keithley: After the 1996 rally in Washington, Stand for Children Day, Jonah Edelman, who’s now the group’s C.E.O., wanted to start a child advocacy organization. He put some feelers out around the country, and they were looking for somewhere that was ready for change.

In Salem, they were cutting mental health access. There was already a group of parents and professionals attached to this issue, but not organized. Jonah came in and gave them a crash course on community organizing. There was this huge action where a couple hundred people showed up at a city council meeting; they brought signs and a big display. The city reinstated access to mental health care for kids. Next, the group took on school nutrition and the dental health initiative.

Q: What challenges have you faced as Stand for Children has grown?

Keithley: Trying to maintain that spirit of a community organization, while going national and making sure that the members stay an integral part of the group’s voice. In the communication with members, there can be so much going on locally and statewide that it’s hard to keep track of things nationally, too.

Fifield: Growing so fast has been tough because sometimes Stand for Children has to make quick decisions – which isn’t quite in line with how it was 10 years ago. How do we grow, and have successes for kids, while making sure those ideas are coming from the grassroots?

Keithley: A community organization has to be consensus-driven. That doesn’t necessarily mesh with growing on a large scale. With big numbers, it becomes a difficult task. You have to come back and check every once in a while – are we communicating effectively?

Fifield: We try to instill in our members the idea that we’re not going to agree on everything. Stand for Children is also learning how to better communicate across the state. We need to be able to communicate within the state, and to our members, quickly. A comment that’s been put out in an article in one state could affect another state’s work. We want to make sure that we can work on the issues we need to that are relevant, state by state, and it’s not going to be harmful.