Improving K-12 Education

RISE – Elevating Parent and Student Voice

By Guest Author Alan Gottlieb

Alan has been a Denver-based journalist for more than 30 years. He covered DPS for the Denver Post in the mid-1990s, worked as an education program officer for The Piton Foundation, and co-founded Education News Colorado and Chalkbeat. For the past five years, he has worked as a contract writer and communications consultant.

As a leader of the Bhutanese Nepali immigrant community in Aurora Colo., Lagan Rai was dismayed when he heard in July that the inner-ring suburban school district would start the 2020-21 school year with at least eight weeks of remote learning.

During the final three months of the previous school year, the 40,000-student district had been forced into remote learning by the explosion of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those months had been largely a waste of time for Rai’s two elementary school-aged children, and many of the other 280 Bhutanese Nepali students and their families with whom he works.

Language and technology barriers, as well as uneven delivery of instruction, had meant that students learned little if anything during those months, Rai said.

Now, as the start of the new school year loomed, those families were looking for some assurances that Aurora Public Schools was going to offer something better for their kids in the fall. But under normal circumstances, many families with limited English and little knowledge of school district operations struggle to get information they need from school districts.

Fortunately, Rai had a direct pipeline to high-level officials in APS, thanks to his active participation in RISE Colorado, a community organizing nonprofit that practices an authentically grassroots approach to parental engagement. In its seven years of existence, RISE and its members have gained significant influence in APS through persistent, polite pressure and deeply researched campaigns.

Aurora is known as the most diverse school district in Colorado. Students come from more than 130 countries and speak more than 160 languages, according to the school district website. RISE’s paid staff come from several of these communities, some of them historically untouched by more traditional community organizing groups.

RISE parents like Rai don’t read from scripts prepared by the organization’s paid staff, as is the case with some community organizers. At RISE, parents attend hours of workshops where they receive training on organizing principles, and put in significant time learning about the education issues that concern their communities.

The power and influence of RISE was on full display on a recent bright August Saturday, when Lagan Rai and more than 140 other Aurora families gathered around computers in their homes and put three senior school district officials through a polite but pointed grilling about what school would look like in the fall.

It was the first of three cycles of forums RISE plans to run during the 2020-21 school year, said Veronica Crespin-Palmer, RISE co-founder and CEO. Each cycle will include a district-wide survey of families, a family-led community forum, and a report synthesizing and sharing back the results of the survey and forum.

“The coming months are a critical period for school and community recovery, and the choices made will impact students for decades to come,” Crespin-Palmer said. “These cycles of forums and feedback will amplify family leaders’ voices as the framework for a more equitable future for education.”

Under normal circumstances, this RISE-sponsored forum would be held in person. Given the pandemic, however, the August forum was held over Zoom.

In a technological feat for the ages, RISE had the August session translated into seven languages in real time. Other than a brief pause early in the town hall to correct a technical glitch, the translation ran smoothly for the entire two hours.

RISE hired professional interpreters to run Zoom breakout rooms where native speakers of each language could follow along in real time. RISE staffers provided simultaneous interpretation in Spanish.

Parent and student representatives from four different RISE constituencies — Bhutanese Nepali, Latino, Burmese/Karen/Karenni, and African American — had the opportunity to ask the officials two questions each.

Rai’s questions were direct and to the point: “What is the district doing to get ready for in-person learning and what are the things we should know and do to prepare our students to go back to school?”

And: “Most of the Nepali families are not familiar with technology and also students in grades K-2 struggle to operate technology. What support will families get from the district so they can help students access their remote learning classes?”

Tameka Brigham, APS’s executive director of student success, and two other district officials came prepared with informational slides and carefully crafted answers that avoided platitudes. They had learned through experience that RISE members are knowledgeable and don’t accept pat answers. As a result, the town hall, even over Zoom, came across as a real dialogue between a school district and its constituents.

Answering Rai’s first question, APS officials said that getting back to in-person learning was in the district’s wheelhouse, since that’s what schools have been doing for the past 150-plus years. Jeff Park, executive director of the district’s Office of Autonomous Schools, told Rai that APS is focused on “all the things we need to be sure are consistent throughout the school year,” whether learning is in-person or remote.

That means, he said, paying close attention to academic, physical and structural, and social and behavioral issues. “We are trying to plan for every single possibility and then train our teachers and principals to be ready in those circumstances.”

Brigham told Rai that she approaches such questions from dual perspectives: As a district administrator but also as a parent. She said the most important thing for parents to do is get their kids established in a routine that resembles the structure of a school day. And then, as the transition to in-person approaches, Bingham said, focus on helping your kids adjust to wearing masks for extended periods of time.

Later reflecting back on the town hall, Rai said he felt mostly satisfied by the answers offered. He said Bhutanese Nepali families desperately want their children back in classes inside school buildings. But, like many other parents, they worry about whether it’s safe.

While district officials tried to reassure him that safety was the top priority, Rai said his families thought the district should be doing more. For example, he said, students should be instructed to wash with soap and water all exposed parts of their bodies before leaving school. Also, students should change clothes at the end of the school day and leave clothes at school to be laundered so they don’t bring contaminated clothes home, he said.

“Our families are very worried about being affected if the children bring the virus home,” Rai said.

Common themes emerged from questions posed by different communities. Everyone was concerned, like Rai, about safety, and about the challenges families face getting online reliably and consistently. There were also pointed questions about racist teachers, opportunity gaps, and the inequitable treatment of African American students, and girls in particular.

Tamika Coleman, representing the Black Alliance for Educational Excellence within RISE, posed those last two questions. Later, she said that while APS has made real efforts to address these issues on some level, at times the onus seems to be placed back on students and families to make meaningful change occur.

“When it comes to racism from teachers and others in leadership roles, we strongly feel the district can appropriately address these concerns from students about racism and microaggressions and the like through both training and policy,” Coleman said. “We have requested that the district work with us to co-create those policies.”

Coleman said since moving to Colorado from North Carolina, she has found her voice through RISE. In North Carolina, she said, when she had concerns about her daughter’s school, she had to work through the teacher to the principal to the dean, randomly emailing officials and rarely receiving any response. Every step took precious time and usually led nowhere.

“I was clueless about the structure of the district; I had no idea,” Coleman said. When she came into contact with RISE, though, one of the first things she learned was how APS’s organizational structure works, who does what, and whom to contact to get stuff done. “It opened up a whole new line to me,” she said.

Students, too, are active participants in RISE forums. At the August town hall, Scarlett, a fourth-grade RISE student leader, asked two questions, as did Reya, a sixth-grader, and Gissele, a high school senior.

Parents and students alike come up with their own questions, then practice delivery with RISE’s paid organizers, Crespin-Palmer said.

RISE aims first to educate parents and students about opportunity gaps and their role in closing them; then engage them in organizing and devising solutions; and finally, empowering them to take on leadership roles in seeing those changes through.

While RISE members can push hard on the school district, the relationship between the two organizations is one of mutual respect, and district leaders say they never feel that RISE is fomenting conflict for conflict’s sake.

“One of the things I appreciate most about RISE is that they meet the needs of their communities but they are also great partners with the district,” said Tameka Brigham. “They not only help districts understand how to become better partners with community, they help communities understand what their rights are and what their agency is in the voice and trajectory of their own children.”

While it takes a confluence of conditions to create a road-based, authentically grassroots organization like RISE to exist, the obvious benefits to communities and district officials make it a model worthy of emulating.

The RISE model of parent and student empowerment should be replicable, and Crespin-Palmer pointed to two tools RISE co-created with the Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program: Family Engagement: A Rubric for Education Policymaking, and Family-Led Policymaker Checklist for Families.

“Communities around the nation and globe are already full of the leaders of today and tomorrow,” Crespin-Palmer said. “All they need is a seat at the table or create their own table and a platform to amplify their lived experiences and solutions. Families are powerful change agents, and should be regarded as architects of policy, not just objects.”

RISE has been around since 2013. It was co-founded by three Teach for America alumnae, all Latinas, with a passion for parent empowerment: Veronica Crespin-Palmer, Milagros Barsallo, and Tangia Al-awaji Estrada. Only Crespin-Palmer, who serves as RISE CEO, is still with the organization.

RISE has organizers working with Asian immigrant families, immigrants from Latin America and Mexico, and with Aurora’s African American community.

Crespin-Palmer said she and her team have learned by doing over the seven years of the organization’s existence. One key, she said, is not to be defensive, but to welcome constructive criticism from the school district they’re working to change.

For that among several reasons, Crespin-Palmer’s relationship with APS Superintendent Rico Munn has evolved constructively over the years. “We let him know what we are doing. We believe in transparency,” she said. “We put our cards on the table, and we tell him that if he feels like we’ve misstepped, call us, and we will do the same.

“We are proud of that rapport and feel it has helped our families get the answers they need from the district.”

That attitude isn’t lost on the district.

“RISE is actually effective, unlike a lot of groups out there that only claim they are,” APS’ Jeff Park said. “RISE is all about amplifying family voices and finding agendas through the families, rather than creating an agenda and having families rally around it. And ultimately, that’s what we all really need.”

Alan Gottlieb

Written By: Guest Author
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