Engagement, advocacy stressed at parent meeting

There are plenty of advocates for public education — elected officials, lobbyists, administrators and teachers — but among those voices, the most important is that of a parent.

That was the common theme at the Public Advocacy for Education event Wednesday, Nov. 20 at Heather Hills Elementary School in Bowie, hosted by Prince George's County Board of Education members Verjeana Jacobs and Zabrina Epps, whose district includes Laurel.

"Parents have to know how to advocate for their children," Jacobs said. "They have to come to us and tell us what they want so we can better advocate for them, in turn. We want to educate our public."

Over the course of the evening, about 50 parents from District 1 and District 5 learned how to better advocate for their students, from getting involved in their local PTAs to navigating Annapolis to share their views with legislators.

Epps and Jacobs worked together to co-host the event because they were "of like minds," Jacobs said. She said she hoped the evening would lead to focus groups on various issues, like magnet schools and the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

For Epps, the desire to hold an advocacy forum stemmed from County Executive Rushern Baker III's attempt to take over the school system. While Baker didn't receive the full power that he initially asked for, the General Assembly last spring approved a bill that gave Baker some control over Prince George's County Public Schools, including the power to appoint a new chief executive officer, formerly known as the superintendent, the board chairman and several at-large board members. The County Council was also given the power to appoint a parent to the board.

"When the governance structure was changed, that really put things into perspective for me," Epps said. "In figuring out how to move forward, it caused me to think about getting back to the basics. What we as board members are here to do is to act as advocates. As an education advocate, you know that there's a larger advocacy role to be played by parents and the community. ... We have the opportunity to convene a conversation on issues we know parents are concerned about and have a dialogue with them about the process, so people can understand the process."

Parents may not know how the legislative process impacts their children, Epps said, such as how the "slots for tots" bill will pan out after being approved in the 2012 general election.

"Our commitment to continue to develop a 21st-century education for children doesn't stop at the end of an election cycle," she said. "It doesn't stop with the board, either. The board's role is an extension of the community and we wanted to give the community an opportunity to understand that process beyond that."

In that vein, lobbyist John Woolums, director of governmental relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, walked attendees through a lengthy, comprehensive course in advocating for their children on all levels of government.

"Just tell your story," Woolums said.

Of the nearly 2,500 bills introduced to the Maryland General Assembly every year, about 350 of them pertain to public education, Woolums said. If parents want their voices heard on a particular issue, they have to follow the proper channels, and use the "right tool at the right time."

Woolum's presentation ran the gamut from where to find parking in Annapolis during the hectic General Assembly session, to who to call and what to expect from legislators on the federal level. Even if a parent spends five minutes on the phone with a federal legislative assistant, that's time well-spent, Woolums said.

"And never shy away from your local elected officials," he said. "If there's something important, keep talking about it and you'll get them talking, too."

On an even more local level, Prince George's County PTA Council President Earnest Moore urged involvement in PTAs.

"A lot of time, people think PTAs are about fundraising and bake sales. They're not," he said. "We work hand-in-hand with the school system, the principals and parents. We realize we can't do this by ourselves."

If there's a problem, speak up, Moore said. But parents should always have a solution ready to propose.

"Identify the problem and recommend a solution," he said. "If there's a problem and you don't try to help with the solution, you're part of the problem, too. ... We work together. If we don't fight for our children, no one else will."

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