Author Archive | Catherine Durkin Robinson

School choice parents to rally at Florida Capitol

About 1,000 people are expected for the rally in Tally.

About 1,000 people are expected for the rally in Tally.

“Where are the parents who support school choice?”

“Where are the parents who support parental empowerment?”

“Where are the parents whose children benefit from education reform?”

These are typical questions from traditional parenting groups, groups that sometimes say they represent Florida parents in all educational matters. They have to ask the whereabouts of moms and dads of more than 1.5 million schoolchildren of choice, because such parents don’t tend to be in their membership files.

To the extent these choice parents are low-income and single moms who choose options such as the tax credit scholarship, they do indeed tend to be less visible in the political sphere.

Get ready, because that’s changing.

Early Wednesday morning, families from all over Florida, from Miami’s inner city neighborhoods to rural Pasco County, will board buses with their children and teachers and travel five to 10 hours to get to Tallahassee for School Choice Day. Organizers expect more than a thousand participants to gather and show lawmakers, traditional parenting groups, and everyone else the real face of parental school choice.

They won’t look like right-wing corporations. There’s a good bet they will be racially and economically diverse. In other words, they will probably look like you and me. Continue Reading →

Why is a parenting organization working against so many parents?

From the beginning, when my children were barely out of pull-ups, I was a school-choice mom. Living in a rural area, surrounded by cows and NASCAR flags, I insisted on driving 45 minutes one way, every day, so my kids could attend a Jewish preschool. Despite massive headaches caused by northern drivers on vacation, I knew the learning environment provided by the JCC was best for my kids, building a strong foundation to support lifelong learning.

PTSAAs preschool graduation neared, my husband and I chose an excellent, traditional public school for them to attend for their elementary years. This school was not located in our neighborhood and we couldn’t afford to move. But, because I was a teacher in that same district, I applied for the choice program and my children were accepted. It meant I had to transfer closer to home and still drive a half-hour out of my way, but I felt fortunate to place my children in a school that would meet their needs.

After leaving the teaching profession, I once again exercised my right to choose. We moved the kids into a private Jewish school for the rest of their elementary education. My husband and I had to live in a simpler neighborhood and forgo little luxuries, like fashionable shoes and date nights, to make it work, but our boys excelled in their new learning environment.

For middle school, our family moved yet again, prompting jokes that compared us to nomadic ancestors, and we applied for a magnet program. Once more, we were lucky. Our sons won the lottery and were accepted into a dynamic, academically rigorous program.

Who knows where we’ll end up for high school?

During these public school years, I’ve been a consistent PTSA member. Joining this organization seemed the best way to be involved in my children’s school. PTSA volunteers are dedicated parents, teachers, and students committed to helping schools raise needed funds that enhance learning opportunities. I joined to show my support for those who were educating my children, and to act as an important presence among teachers and administrators.

Over the years, though, I sadly watched the PTSA take positions that alienated moms like me, moms who choose. Sure, the organization is a presence at my sons’ middle school – they sell magnets for cars and snacks at sporting events. The PTSA agrees that magnets are a valid choice, but parents who choose other options are not represented by the PTSA and, worse yet, are regularly dismissed in alerts and agendas. I would often read PTSA literature and wonder out loud:

“Why is a parenting organization working against so many parents?”

But I’m not one to give up easily. Continue Reading →

Choice groups, unite! Florida alliance brings school choice sectors together

FACE-LOGO-smallIn 2010, Doug Tuthill took a look around and realized he was living in a new era.

“Florida had this rapidly expanding portfolio of school choice options,” said Tuthill, the president of Step Up For Students, which administers the state’s tax credit scholarship program. “Yet there was little dialogue among the groups representing those choices. We weren’t talking to each other about what was working, what wasn’t, and why.”

Several important players in this bourgeoning movement recognized the need for more collaboration. Florida Virtual School and Step Up For Students, among others, wanted to see the school choice movement united, so they could learn from each other and talk through any differences.

Thus, FACE was born.

Florida Alliance for Choices in Education, or FACE, is comprised of more than 50 members, representing a diverse coalition of organizations dedicated to providing Florida school children with more educational options. Such organizations include National Coalition of Public School Options, Florida Charter School Alliance, Foundation for Florida’s Future, and StudentsFirst – all coming together with the belief that, as the FACE website says, “State policy should enable all parents to be fully engaged in their children’s education and to access those learning options that best meet their children’s needs.”

Step Up For Students (which co-hosts this blog) staffed the initial effort. Three individuals – Wendy Howard, a parent advocate from Tampa; Jim Horne, a former legislator and state education commissioner; and Julie Young, president and CEO of Florida Virtual School – spent a year facilitating outreach and diplomacy, eventually bringing all components of choice together in one organization.

Florida is the first state to do this. Continue Reading →

Ed reform’s hopeful revolutionaries

“This should be a moment of renaissance in education in America.”
– President Bill Clinton, keynote speaker, KIPP School Summit 2012

Advocating for students isn’t easy. Reform opponents regularly engage in ad hominem and anonymous attacks, tactics they condemn in others. The vitriol and anger they express are unworthy of the children they claim to be fighting for.

So it was refreshing to be with educators at last week’s KIPP conference in Orlando who reject that tone. The idea of spending a week with 3,000 dedicated educators, who champion the idea of putting students first, was a lifeline I grabbed with both hands.

In all of my eight years in education, I can honestly report I’ve never experienced anything like a KIPP gathering. The differences were startling and immediate.

KIPP teachers don’t complain about long hours or low salaries. KIPP teachers don’t fear change; they embrace it.

KIPP teachers don’t hold sessions on how to defeat education reform. They don’t hold sessions on how to defeat anti-reformers, either.

KIPP teachers don’t allow anyone to use uninvolved parents or poverty as an excuse for low performance. They don’t allow students to, either.

KIPP teachers don’t teach to the test.

Instead, KIPP teachers are focused on solutions. Their positive energy is contagious. They have hope for the future and talk about what they can do, which is:

Build a better tomorrow. Reach more students who need them the most. Double the number of kids in their schools. Double the number of their graduates in college. This is impressive, considering KIPP graduates go on to graduate from college at four times the rate of non-KIPP students from the same communities.

KIPP teachers at the summit talked about being a catalytic force in the communities they serve. Hearing them talk about how they can be even better was enough to make even the most beaten-down reformer feel good about the movement again.

But then it got better. Continue Reading →

Former teacher: Progressives need to better convince progressives about need for education reform

Editor’s note: The set-in-stone narrative about education reform is progressives vs. conservatives, Republicans vs. Democrats, teachers unions vs. the “corporate agenda.” The truth is more complex – and more colorful. One of the more dynamic angles is the degree to which progressives are divided. In this guest post, former teacher Catherine Durkin Robinson makes a case that progressives have become too resistant to needed change – and that fellow progressives need to do a better job persuading them.

When I began working in education reform, some of my Democratic friends and fellow activists weren’t happy. Some had long railed against any attempt to change education, empower parents or hold teachers responsible for their own performance. While plenty of Democrats support reform, including President Obama, some of my friends looked at other supporters of the movement – supporters like Jeb Bush – and freaked out.

I was one of them, once.

Years ago, as a new high school social studies teacher, I wondered how testing fit into the curriculum. I looked at too many students, with hungry bellies and less than ideal home lives, and wondered how to help them learn. I looked at my special education students, too often seen as afterthoughts, and wondered how to provide the unique help they needed. They already came to me so far behind their peers. How would I reverse years of a failed system in just under 45 minutes each day?

Then I got to work.

By my eighth year of teaching, I was helping even my most challenging students learn and grow. I prepared them for important assessments without teaching to the test. I showed them history and economics could be entertaining. The recipe? An unwavering belief in my students’ ability to learn, setting high expectations for them, and working hard to follow through and do justice to those principles.

But then I looked around me.

Too many other adults in the lives of these students relied on excuses for why they couldn’t do an effective job. While passionate educators devised creative and unique lesson plans, ineffective teachers blamed parents or faulted an unfair society. Principals faulted a lack of resources and elected officials blamed others. Continue Reading →