I sometimes think about how things might have turned out differently for my son if I knew 21 years ago what I know now about the resources available to children in DC’s public schools, the rights I have as a parent, and how I could use my voice to improve his educational experience.
My son, who is now in prison, struggled in school. He had an emotional disorder, ADHD, and is schizophrenic. He was labeled a “bad kid” and school administrators would move him from one school to another because they didn’t want to be bothered with him. I didn’t know I could demand that he stay in the school he was in. School administrators did not have the training they needed to deal with my son’s traumatic stress.
With my 9-year-old daughter, who has special needs, I have taken a different path than the one I took with my first child. When I saw that the DCPS school she was attending in Ward 1 was not providing the services she needed, I chose to enroll her in a charter school that I believed could do that. I am constantly working to find the best educational solutions for all of my children, including three with special needs. By raising my voice, I have opened up better choices for them.
Until recently, I did not like talking about my own experiences and struggles as a parent. But I now believe that I can bring some awareness to these issues by letting people know what I have experienced. I have learned that there is power in numbers, that parents have rights, and that if you stand up and speak up, you can make change happen.
Power in Numbers
I have especially found the power of my voice by serving for the past two years on the Ward 8 Parents as Leaders in Education board. This is one of six ward-based PLE boards in the city, organized by the group Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE). PAVE is a two-year-old nonprofit organization that gives parents a voice, and helps them see and work for the choices that are, and should be, available to them and their children when it comes to their education.
For the past two years, in January, we have celebrated DC Parent Voice and Choice Week (DCPVCW). We meet with our councilmembers and policymakers to talk about the education issues that matter to us. And our voices are making a difference.
This year, more than 100 of us held meetings with 11 of our Council representatives and the Deputy Mayor for Education during DCPVCW. I participated in seven of the meetings. The meeting rooms were crowded as we asked our elected officials about their commitment to trauma-informed instruction, and whether they would do what our schools needed to help our kids. (We also spoke about our other issue for this year: more transparent school funding.) The councilmembers I met with listened to us and said they are committed to this issue. The Deputy Director of the Committee of the Whole was very helpful — she gave us a lot of her time, and suggested additional resources for us.
Parents Have Rights
At those events, we could have talked about a lot more — how hard it is to understand school budgets, the strict DCPS policies and procedures for special education that don’t take into account what parents know about their own children’s needs, ways in which schools are not given the resources they need to serve our kids, the inequities around school funding, the problems caused by empty city buildings and how they could be given to schools or other programs that serve our community, and the shortage of quality choices we have for our children’s education east of the Anacostia River, compared to the choices that exist elsewhere in the city.
But what’s most important is that we now know that we should have a say in the education system and the way in which our city is educating each of our children. Our work at PAVE has shown that we have rights as parents and when we work together, we can see change.
If You Stand Up and Speak Up, You Can Make Change Happen
Last year, we pushed for increased funds for after-school and summer programming because that kind of programming is very important to the learning and emotional needs of our children. These Out of School Time funds had been cut in previous years, and by talking about this issue, the Mayor and the DC Council increased funding for these programs by over $10 million.
This year, our focus was even closer to my heart and my family experience: “Mental Health Supports and Trauma-Informed Training in All Schools” was one of the two priorities we identified. We talked about the funding and supports our schools need to prepare every staff member to promote mental health in every form, and to recognize students who are affected by traumatic stresses. Creating a safe, nurturing learning environment for our students to realize their fullest potential should be the number-one priority in every classroom. And after our experience last year, I know that we will see change around this work because that’s what happened last year when we stood up for what we believed in.
I have learned a lot since my first child about our city’s educational system, my rights as a parent, how to advocate for my own child, and how by joining with other parents, I can raise my voice for all children in the city. I would definitely encourage parents to join one of PAVE’s Parent Leaders in Education boards, talk about these issues on social media, send letters to their councilmembers, and attend Council meetings. Great things can and do happen when parents raise their voices.
Shavon Collier is a native Washingtonian who graduated from what is now called Cardozo Education Campus and lives in Ward 8. She is the mother of six children, three of whom have special needs; four attend or attended DCPS schools and two attend a charter school. Shavon is also a member of PAVE’s Ward 8 Parent Leaders in Education board.