Some of Chicago’s most durable parent organizations, such as Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), were forged in the crucible of the nearly-month-long 1987 teachers strike. The new parent groups were quick to connect with both education advocates like Designs for Change and with community-based organizations, as told in “School Reform: Chicago Style,” Mary O’Connell’s history of the 1988 reform law.
Although veteran community organizers looked at local school councils as new opportunities to connect with parents and develop grassroots advocacy campaigns, within just a few years, energy for LSCs themselves began to fade. As public interest and funds for LSC campaigns and training dwindled, parents found other ways to advocate for their schools. Fundraising, always popular, became even more so as CPS finances took a sharp downturn.
In recent years, parent organizing has often broken into different factions. Many grassroots groups have strong neighborhood bases, often focused on working-class parents of color. Bridging differences of culture and language among these parents is a challenge.
“We are a cross-cultural organization and we are very intentional about that. All our publications are in English and Spanish. All meetings we hold have translation,” said Rosazlia Grillier, a longtime parent leader with Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), which organizes citywide and has strong bases on the south and west sides of Chicago. She and a Latina parent co-chair the group’s membership-based parent organization, POWER-PAC, which successfully campaigned for changes in the Student Code of Conduct and helped restore recess in elementary schools.
Ideology has also played a role in the creation and support of parent groups. In the run-up to the battle over school closings, groups with more corporate backing, such as Stand for Children and New Schools for Chicago, heated up their parent organizing efforts. Although the Chicago Teachers Union has a long history of collaboration with grassroots groups, a 2014 real estate sale brought in an infusion of cash, allowing its foundation to step up giving to parent and community groups, including Raise Your Hand.
Parent leaders are hopeful that the silver lining of the dark cloud hanging over CPS could turn out to be a greater sense of urgency among parents to connect and advocate.
“Sometimes folks are working on the same thing but in separate silos, and that makes it less effective. But I think people are starting to wrap their head around the concept that we can accomplish more together than we can separately,” said Grillier.
“I’m finding more parents are connecting across the city through existing social media groups. That might leave out a subset of parents who aren’t active on social media, but it’s a start,” said Wendy Katten, executive director of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, which also supported the recess campaign and is now advocating for state and city revenue solutions to the fiscal crisis. “Parents are realizing they have to get connected in more of a global way. Individual school involvement isn’t going to be enough. The challenges facing the district are so great.”
However, the lack of a clear solution to the budget crisis makes creating a united front more difficult. Raise Your Hand, like the Chicago Teachers Union, is promoting a mix of revenue solutions from both the city and the state. On May 25, Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool led buses to Springfield, but the CPS lobbying effort has focused solely on state solutions.
Meanwhile, school-level parent advocacy seems to have had the most recent success. Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel quietly made it known that two Southwest Side schools, Byrne and Dore, would get capital projects to relieve overcrowding. At Dore, that means a brand-new school.
“The parents were quite forceful in talking about the overcrowding problems and worked hard to make sure that those in leadership, from local ward alderman to the top of the food chain, were aware of that problem,” said Steve Brown, spokesperson for House Speaker Michael Madigan. Both the current and future Dore sites lie in his district. “I think that’s what brought it about.”