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Village Voices

A new activist group meets to propose a two-year plan to involve parents in public education.

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Last week, while the Orleans Parish School Board continued to fret over its new job description and voted to hire antennae consultants, another kind of board convened to plot a new course for public education. Under the auspices of the Louisiana Research Institute for Community Empowerment (LARICE,), a group of community organizers, educators and others came together at Dillard University last Wednesday to discuss a revolutionary idea: engaging public school system participants with a goal of demanding a quality education for every child.

"We challenge U.S. citizens and the public officials who work for them to put an end to the continuing, centuries-old tradition of providing quality education to only a select sector of our population," read the draft statement that a core group of LARICE organizers presented for discussion. Referring to the Freedom Schools established 40 years ago this summer in Mississippi, the statement called quality education "an important and necessary ingredient in our country's continuing struggle towards fully participatory democracy."

The project -- a group effort largely designed by Robert Moses, director of the renowned Algebra Project -- laid out a four-point plan that underscored the criticism that many current school reformers don't actually have children in public schools. Guided by the LARICE document, the group proposes to gather ideas and proposals over a two-year period, beginning with an informal survey of local communities. Following that, organizers will conduct a series of visits to residents in their homes. A third and galvanizing step would be to gather those involved in the surveys and visits together for structured "Story Circles," in which members would discuss education issues. All these steps would be supported by ongoing, intensive training in organizing, leadership and governance from LARICE's College for Labor and Organizing, currently housed at Dillard University. The New Orleans-based People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, which conducts anti-racist organizing training across the country, would provide support through its Jim Dunn Organizers' Roundtable.

Tentatively titled "Harvesting the Voice of the Voiceless: Ensuring High Quality Public Education for Everyone," the proposed two-year effort aims to engage parents, grandparents and students who've felt shut out of the public schools' decision-making process. "What we need to talk about is how to get the real people to the table," said Curtis Muhammed, a veteran organizer who worked in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. "We ain't the real people."

"We find people own stuff when they're a part of it," said Angela Winfrey-Bowman, a core trainer with the People's Institute. She urged everyone present to bring three or four parents with them to the next discussion. Some teachers encouraged those present to bring students, as well.

Labor organizer Adam Wilson said he knew most of the 30 or so people seated in a circle on the stage of Dillard's Cook Auditorium. "These are not new faces," said Wilson, adding that most at the meeting had been involved with Community Labor United -- LARICE's parent organization -- or with the Douglass Community Coalition, a network focused on Frederick Douglass High School and the neighborhood around it.

In addition to labor activists and People's Institute staffers, the meeting included Kojo Livingston, spokesperson for Citizens United for the Reform of Education; Ted Quant, director of the Twomey Center for Peace Through Justice at Loyola University; and Malcolm Suber, head of a network of Urban Heart school-and-community programs.

Absent from the first meeting were public school parents. Edgar Chase III, Dean of Dillard University's Division of Business and a leader of the LARICE effort, acknowledged that the discussion needed to be widened. But on Wednesday, no one at the initial gathering had any illusions about how difficult it would be to involve everyday people -- and especially poor people -- in yet another conversation about how to change their families' lives.

But Chase, who was appointed to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary School Education (BESE) in March, was upbeat about the forum, which will reconvene before the end of July. For his part, he says he's committed to making sure quality education is available to every child, not only those whose parents can afford private schools or are able to make their way through the admissions process for magnet schools.

"I think the BESE board doesn't get information from the bottom," said Chase. "Democracy demands a well-educated citizenry, and we can't leave masses of people behind. You can do it with our existing schools, existing neighborhoods, existing populations."

For more information on Louisiana Research Institute for Community Empowerment, contact Edgar Chase at echase@dillard.edu.

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