How the reformers were reformed

They began with confrontational tactics. When a district superintendent wouldn't take their demands seriously they single-mindedly targeted him with negative publicity and vociferous demands to city officials until he was forced out. When the chancellor of New York City's schools wouldn't meet with them they demonstrated in front of his house.

But more recently, a new reality has dawned for Mothers on the Move (MOM). The feisty Bronx-based group, which once imagined that angry advocacy would be enough, has evolved.

"In the beginning, we didn't really have a relationship with the schools at all," recalls Jessie McDonald, a longtime MOM member. "I guess they thought we were just a crazy bunch of parents screaming about things."

But today, say MOM members, there's an understanding that positive change in public schools can be achieved only by working from inside.

"I wouldn't say every school has opened its doors to us," says McDonald. But there are now many "that really want us to come in."

The story of MOM is largely an inspirational one - but it's also a tale heavy with the somber reality of the enormous and comprehensive effort required to improve a neighborhood's schools.

MOM sprang to being in a classroom - but not the kind of public school classroom the group now works to transform.

It was instead an adult literacy class, where in 1991 a group of Bronx residents were struggling to learn to read forms printed in English. As an exercise, the teacher, Barbara Gross, suggested that her students - many of whom had children in the neighborhood schools - look those schools up in a citywide ranking.

Ms. Gross's students were stunned to discover that the schools their children attended were among the worst in the city. And Gross herself was taken aback to realize how little these parents knew about the public school system.

Thus was born the idea that together, neighborhood mothers could educate themselves about the city's school system, and collectively - with knowledge as their tool - work to improve their local schools.

It was truly a grass-roots movement, with early members knocking on doors in the neighborhood, asking other parents what they knew about city schools and whether they'd like to be involved in a drive for school improvement.

The early results were impressive. A coalition of a few hundred parents came together. Suddenly people who previously had been politically inactive were voting in local elections and attending school board meetings.

Perhaps the high point of MOM's early years was its success in using a public pressure campaign to oust their district superintendent, a man they perceived as insensitive to the needs of their schools.

But that victory led them to a lesson few expected. His replacement was a local woman whom they greeted with enthusiasm. However, when her methods clashed with their desires - and when dramatic change proved as elusive as ever - it became necessary to think more broadly about school reform.

"We found out that there were more problems surrounding education that made it hard for kids to succeed in school," says McDonald, and the group began to focus on the larger questions of poverty in the neighborhood.

They also began to view the schools as partners and allies, learning to listen to what the schools could tell them, rather than simply presenting demands. They are now actively working with local schools to create community-school partnerships.

Over the course of 13 years, the schools in MOM's neighborhood have shown slow but steady improvement. The group is largely credited with having forced a better distribution of resources among district schools and some positive administrative changes.

But MOM has reformed itself as well, says Jan Atwell, executive director of United Parents Association, a federation of New York City parent groups. "They've learned to work within."

It's a reform reshaping other city parent groups as well, says Eric Zachary, of New York University's Institute for Education and Social Policy. In the past five years, he has seen growth in "the ability of parents groups to use both confrontational and collaborative policies."

That's a change for the good, he says, because "it's really the combination of the two that yields the best results."

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