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Annenberg study finds community groups spur education reform from Catalyst Magazine

Annenberg study finds community groups spur education reform Posted By Margaret Rhodes On Wednesday, October 14, 2009
In Government and Policy

Grassroots organizations are making considerable strides in school reform across the country, according to a recently released study by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

One of these groups is Grow Your Own, an Illinois program that is tackling the issue of teacher retention and cultural competence in schools by cultivating teachers from within communities.  Grow Your Own was inspired by Project Nueva Generación, developed by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. The project got its start with mothers who were working as parent mentors in schools.

The six-year study analyzes the different strategies used by various groups to inspire school reform, says Kavitha Mediratta, one of the study’s leaders. Researchers reviewed the organizing campaigns for community groups in seven cities, including Chicago, to understand how organizing efforts took place.

Grow Your Own was the only example of a small, neighborhood-based organizing effort that was later scaled up into a statewide strategy through passage of the 2004 Grow Your Own Teachers Act.

“That was particularly interesting to us, to see how they went about building the relationships, and how political will can make this strategy happen,” Mediratta noted.

Anne Hallett, director of Grow Your Own, says that mutual benefits are important. Candidates are committed to their community, and over a third of them are preparing for teaching positions in shortage areas such as bilingual education and special education.  Likewise, the program provides an opportunity for the applicants, who mostly fall between the ages of 30 and 50, to attend school and pursue a new career.

“I think almost all of them really have always wanted to be a teacher, but never [could] afford college,” Hallett says. “So they say this is a dream come true.”

The main challenge facing the program is money. Grow Your Own received $3.5 million in funding in 2008, a figure that declined to $3.15 million this year.

“We have to work for the budget every year,” Hallett says.

Annenberg found that in all seven cities, the organizing efforts ultimately led to either improved achievement, new practices and policies or more equitable distribution of resources. Parents and students became more empowered and involved in policy-making in their local schools and districts.

The Community Coalition in Los Angeles, for instance, lobbied for school board resolutions that led to curriculum changes and a jump in funding for school repairs and to reduce overcrowding. In the Bronx, New York, a community and clergy coalition worked with an affiliate group, Sistas and Brothas United, to fight for the hiring of veteran teachers to mentor and support new teachers.

Besides Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, the other cities included in the study are Austin, Tex., Miami, Oakland, and Philadelphia.

Overall, successful community organizing groups shared certain characteristics, such as leadership training for parents and students and advocacy combined with activities to maintain enthusiasm among stakeholders.