Lisa Ortega tosses strands of curly hair over her shoulder and fairly bounces on the edge of her seat as she talks about her first "Mothers on the Move" (MOM) meeting four years ago.
"It was the power that I felt in that room," the single mother of three recalls. "The feeling that we could get something done. That was it, I was hooked."
Jessie McDonald watches Ms. Ortega as she speaks and nods. But she remembers that what first excited her - a mother of four and longtime resident of New York's tough and racially mixed South Bronx neighborhood - wasn't the sense of power. It was the offer of knowledge.
Five years ago Ms. McDonald first sat in on a MOM workshop and found herself astonished. "They talked to us about the school board, who was on it, how they got there, how it's set up. I didn't know any of these things. Suddenly, here was someone explaining to me how things work."
Explaining how things work is what MOM is all about. A privately funded community organization based in the South Bronx, MOM was formed with a specific goal in mind: improving the quality of the neighborhood's public schools. In order to achieve that goal, the group has undertaken an educational project of its own: the training of an all-volunteer army of highly informed, fully engaged, and deeply committed educational advocates - the mothers (and sometimes the fathers) of the kids involved.
Built on the belief that parents in low-income neighborhoods often fail to demand better schooling for their kids because they don't know enough about the process even to understand what's going wrong, MOM dedicates itself to giving those parents the knowledge which can become power (see story below).
As a result of working with MOM, Ortega, who never finished 10th grade herself, says proudly, "I can read a report card. I know what reading scores mean. I understand how a school should work." McDonald, a former food-service worker, adds, "We're equipped. We know what we're talking about and [local teachers and principals] know that."
The idea for the advocacy group first occurred to founder Barbara Gross about seven years ago, she says, while she was working as the director of an adult-literacy project in the neighborhood. One day a chart appeared in the office, showing the dismal reading scores of students in the local schools. The adult students - many of whom had children in the schools - were shocked. They had no idea their schools compared so poorly to others. (Of 27 schools in this particular neighborhood - the southern end of Community District 8 in the Bronx - 12 are classified as either "failing" or "at risk," according to Ms. Gross.)
Later, the literacy group took a trip to a fourth-grade class at a nearby school. The adult students were distressed to see how bored and unhappy most of the children appeared, and how little learning seemed to being going on. Later many asked, "What can we do?"
At that point, Gross - not a parent herself, yet disturbed by what she was seeing - drew on her background as a community organizer and obtained the funding needed to launch MOM.
Its beginnings were small. The new group decided to focus on just one local school, an elementary school classified as failing. The original aim was simply to get parents more involved.
With that in mind, Gross and other MOM workers began a campaign to meet the parents and talk to them about the school. Often they waited on the school ground, hoping to catch parents as they dropped off or picked up kids. Other days they canvassed the neighborhood, knocking on doors and simply asking people, "How's your child doing in school? Do you have any comments or complaints?"
So little information
What struck Gross was how little the parents knew about the schools or what was happening in them. When their children had problems they tended to blame the kids or themselves. Many of them hadn't had much schooling themselves, and language or cultural barriers often made them feel uncomfortable about asking questions.
In order to show the parents what school could be like, Gross began organizing trips to less troubled public schools. These trips, Gross says, were revelations to the adults.
"They saw smaller classes, a different kind of atmosphere. There were kids engaged in discussion instead of just being talked at, teachers who love the kids and love their work."
For most, it came as a surprise. "Some got angry. In each group there was always someone who cried," Gross says.
From there, MOM moved on to holding discussions about what the parents would like to see changed in the school.
Some ideas were very specific: For instance, a playground was being used as a parking lot for teachers' cars and the parents wanted it returned to use as a playground. Others were less-tangible goals: more caring teachers, and a more respectful attitude toward the kids and the neighborhood.
As the group learned more about the power structure of New York's schools and came to feel more confident about whom to approach and what to ask for, it began to request meetings with the principal and to make presentations at school-board meetings.
MOM has grown in size to claim about 700 members. Its focus has expanded to include 10 elementary and junior high schools in the neighborhood. It also has worked harder at communicating with more powerful elements of the system - not hesitating to apply pressure when necessary.
When former New York City Schools Chancellor Raymond Cortines once cancelled a meeting with MOM at the last moment, for instance, members picketed his home and made sure to invite the press to their demonstration.
As a result, the group today has an active and mutually supportive relationship with current Schools Chancellor Rudolph Crew. ("I believe in Crew," says McDonald. "I think he's with us.")
That's not to say that the group feels it's where it needs to be. On the contrary, for some members, progress feels disappointingly slow.
Their advocacy, they say, has prompted an increase in the number of textbooks purchased at some schools, safety improvements at others, and an administrative and academic overhaul in one intermediate school. But "there's an awful lot left to do," Gross sighs.
A hope for dramatic change
Gross and others are hopeful that more dramatic change could be right around the corner. A little more than a month ago a new superintendent with a strong performance record was appointed to their district - largely, MOMs members say, due to their repeated requests for a change in administration.
In order to make sure parents will know how to deal with the new superintendent effectively, MOM hired a professor from New York University's Institute for Education and Social Policy to conduct an eight-week seminar.
Eric Zachary, who taught the seminar to about 15 parents, says classes focused on "helping organization members deepen their understanding of what a strong, successful school looks like compared to theirs, identifying specific things to ask for, and understanding how to hold the superintendent accountable."
Working with the parents, says Mr. Zachary, was an exciting experience. "Mothers on the Move has something to teach other groups," he insists. "They represent the potential."
Not always popular
Not everyone, however, has a warm and fuzzy feeling about MOM. There are school officials who strongly dislike the group, and even a number of parents' associations have steered away from working with them, fearing that their style is too abrasive and that they focus too much on the negative.
But Jane Atwell, associate director of the New York-based Educational Priorities Panel, says, "I'm glad they're there. They speak for the children. They have no vested interest outside the children."
If their methods are confrontational, Ms. Atwell says, that doesn't particularly trouble her. "Sometimes that's necessary. They've helped to shine a light on things there in the Bronx."
There's plenty of illuminating still to be done. Ortega speaks with sorrow of her 10-year-old daughter who - despite her placement in advanced classes - "can barely read or write."
McDonald says she believes that it will take at least another three or four years before real improvement takes place in neighborhood schools - at which point her children will all be out of the school system. But that's OK, she insists.
"All this fighting and struggling that I do, it's going to make a difference," she asserts confidently. "I'm fighting for all the little kids I see on the street, the ones whose parents can't fight for them. I fill in that gap. And that's my satisfaction."
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