Concern for her daughters, their friends, and her nephew led Mary Colón to become an actively involved parent in the schools.
Credit: Mary D. Colón
When people ask me what made me become so involved in my kids' schools, or why I started fighting for something so "hopeless" as education reform, I joke about growing up Irish Catholic and being driven by guilt to make the world a better place. But, the truth is, it was concern for my daughters, their friends, my nephew -- people I know personally. I'm not sure what makes me stay involved in something that, at times, can drive me crazy with frustration. I think it's hope -- genuine hope that things have changed for the better and will continue to do so.
I've been involved in the schools here in Minneapolis since the oldest of my two daughters started preschool. She's now a sophomore in high school and my youngest is an eighth grader. When I first started as a parent volunteer, I was asked to do all the things schools have traditionally asked of parents: PTA, fundraising, tutoring, and chaperoning field trips.
My girls flourished in school, but my nephew, who is the same age as my oldest daughter, was failing. His mother was terrified of teachers and principals and didn't trust the system because she had failed out of it at fourteen. She asked me to help.
I didn't realize it at the time, but her fear and distrust woke me up -- it made me realize there are many others like her and pushed me across some invisible boundary of parent involvement. I began asking about the types of services schools had available to help kids such as my nephew.
I found that individual teachers cared and tried to do what they could, but they didn't know how to make the system work for him any more than we did. They were tired and frazzled, dealing every day with hundreds of kids whose problems they couldn't solve. They suggested I go to the county social service system for help.
When I did so, I discovered that the county system and the school system worked in separate, fragmented, and openly territorial ways, often battling each other for dollars and turf. I didn't think there was any way to change that, so I just kept attending conferences with my nephew's teachers and helping however I could.
By the time my oldest daughter and my nephew reached middle school, she was an A student and he was in a "level IV behavior program" -- code for the kids the system can't handle. Eventually, a school social worker wrote a letter to the county, and he was referred to a mental health program. The program proceeded to cancel appointments for the next six weeks until I went in and refused to leave until someone saw him. My nephew finally got help, and I decided then and there that I would fight to make mental health a priority area in the schools.
My opening came through a new policy called Site-Based Management, under which many decisions were decentralized from the district offices of the Minneapolis Public Schools to local school buildings. A few years earlier, each school had been required to create a leadership team that includes parents, as well as administrators, teachers, and other community members. The change to self-governance was frightening for those used to doing what they were told, and some teachers, principals, and even parents resisted the new policy.
So I was surprised when my husband and I went to an open house for parents at my daughter's new school, Northeast Middle School. We were greeted warmly by the principal and staff at the door. They invited everyone who attended to join a new partnership called the Building Leadership Team.
Our team, consisting of twenty-six parents, teachers, administrators, businesspeople, and students, put our heads, skills, and backgrounds together to address issues critical to the school. Finally, we were being asked to do more than sell chocolate for fundraising.
That first year was tough, as parents and educators tried to find equal footing on new ground. We received leadership and problem-solving training from our school district and our business partner, AT&T. We had to learn to trust and respect each other. Ultimately, we found common ground because every member of the team was committed to viewing all students as our kids. Every decision we made was measured against the same yardstick: "Is this the best thing for our kids?"
Our team has accomplished a lot over the past several years. The project I'm proudest of is the resource center, which offers our students and their families on-site medical and mental health services, job-training and placement resources, parenting-skills classes, adult education, after-school activities, tutoring, family outreach programs, and emergency assistance (money, shelter, food, legal aid, and child care). It wasn't created in time to help my nephew, but it has helped hundreds of other kids and their families.
Another important team initiative is bringing new technologies into the school. A homework hotline and voice mail system now allows parents to monitor assignments and leave extended messages for school staff. AT&T is wiring the building for classroom telephones and connections to the Internet. The company has also donated computers that help Resource Center staff document the use of Northeast Middle School's health and social services.
My nephew and my daughters have moved on from middle school to high school, where I've become vice chairperson of the Parent Leadership Team. The high school has also hired me as a part-time family-outreach person. I help kids with reading, and I also keep in constant touch with parents by phone and through home visits. Sometimes they get angry when I raise concerns with them about their children, but mostly they are tickled to death to hear from me. Their lives and those of their kids are often out of control, and they're grateful to have another parent there to help.
There is a line in Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple that captures what it is about kids that makes me want to work hard for them. In the book, the main character, Ceely, has led a hard life full of abuse, neglect, violence, poverty, and racism. While talking to the first real friend she's ever had, she muses, "I think God gets pissed at us when we walk by the color purple and don't even see it."
Kids are like the color purple. Teachers, administrators, and parents are often too busy or too tired to see the potential and beauty in them. We forget that, ultimately, it's about all our kids -- about trying to make sure that they succeed academically and socially, about seeing the color purple before it fades.
Mary D. Colón was the co-chair of Redesign, an initiative to expand the Resource Center model throughout Hennepin County, Minnesota, when she wrote “Parent with a Purpose” for Learn & Live.