Kelley Williams-Bolar first met Connecticut Parents Union founder Gwen Samuel when she was fighting felony charges in Ohio for stealing an education.
Fed up with the conditions in her children’s low-performing school in Akron, Ohio, Williams-Bolar used her father’s address to enroll her children in a better district where she did not live.
At the time, Williams-Bolar was too caught up in her own legal troubles to see herself as an education reformer. But Samuel did.
“She just reached out to me and said this is an opportunity for you to help many other people,” recalled Williams-Bolar, who now leads the Ohio Parents Union, a group pushing for school choice policies to help children stuck in failing schools. “I took that opportunity and I’ve been talking to parents ever since.”
Barely a year after launching the Connecticut Parents Union with a goal of giving parents a greater presence at the Capitol, Samuel has become a national name in the movement to get parents more involved in school reform.
Aside from linking up with nationally-known, if controversial, school reformer and former Washington, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, the Meriden mom-turned-activist has been mentoring parents like Williams-Bolar who are starting similar parent advocacy groups in Ohio, Texas, and Illinois.
The movement seems to be gaining momentum. Samuel was just featured in an Education Week article on the rise of parent unions, and has fielded several requests for speaking engagements around the country.
Two weeks ago, she got a phone call from a parent in Philadelphia asking her to come down and help them organize a parent union there. The woman said an acquaintance told her she needed to talk to Gwen Samuel.
“I’m just an everyday person,” Samuel said with a laugh. “The next thing I know, I have people in Pennsylvania, people in Maryland, inviting me to speak.”
Today, Samuel’s focus will be back on Connecticut as she stages a rally at the Capitol to support Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s education reform bill, which includes overhauling teacher tenure. Speakers will also push for changes to residency laws that punish parents who enroll their children in schools outside their districts.
Keynote speakers include Williams-Bolar, Michelle Bernard, MSNBC policy analyst and CEO of the Bernard Center on Women, Politics and Public Policy, and Rhee, whose grassroots organization StudentsFirst has advocated for more than 50 new education policies in several states.
Rhee’s inclusion prompted Malloy’s decision last month to back out of his planned appearance at the rally. Calling Rhee a “divisive figure,” Senior Communications Adviser Roy Occhiogrosso said the governor was “determined to try and have this discussion about education reform in a way that’s not divisive.”
While Rhee is credited with raising test scores and shutting down failing schools during her time in D.C., teachers have characterized her approach as antagonistic and destructive, and questions have been raised about test score irregularities under her leadership.
Samuel said Monday she understood Malloy’s decision, even though she disagrees. “Some parents were upset, but me, I understand the political landscape.” But Samuel makes no apologies for inviting Rhee to Connecticut.
“I needed a shock factor that would force the conversation. Because we’re still talking about the achievement gap as if it’s some sort of badge of honor,” she said, referring to the wide disparity in performance between students in poor and wealthier school districts.
Citing scores on last year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, she said 58 percent of fourth-graders in Connecticut cannot read on grade level, and most of them are concentrated in the state’s urban districts.
“People are saying, ‘Oh, we have the worst achievement gap in the country, let’s have a luncheon tomorrow.’ No – this is a serious conversation,” Samuel said. “One thing I knew – (Rhee) wasn’t afraid to speak.”
Samuel, who has two children in Meriden public schools, launched the Connecticut Parents Union in response to opposition from the American Federation of Teachers over her 2010 push for a “Parent Trigger” law that would give parents more power to shut down failing schools.
She contacted a lawyer who helped her create her own union – one that would serve the interests of children—and modeled its structure after the AFT. The group has close to 1,000 members.
She said her biggest challenge is fighting the perception that she is anti-teacher. “It’s not about being anti-teacher. It’s about being pro-children,” she said, adding that she has no hidden political agenda.
While she has accepted financial support from ConnCan, an education reform group that promotes charter schools, she said they are just one of many sponsors. She notes Webster Bank contributed $2,000 to help finance today’s rally.
Besides supporting Malloy’s education reform bill, her organization has spoken out on several education policy issues, including a controversy over the practice of schools placing special needs students in “scream rooms” to calm them down.
Samuel’s group has also provided legal assistance in two Connecticut cases where parents or guardians have been arrested for enrolling their children in schools outside of where they live. Through her work on those cases, Samuel met Williams-Bolar as well as an Illinois couple fighting similar allegations.
“How can you tell a parent, ‘I want you to put your child at academic risk—and possibly a safety risk—and if you decide to go elsewhere to protect your child, we’re going to arrest you?’” Samuel asked. “People may say they wouldn’t break the law, but you don’t know what you would do when it comes to your child.”
Samuel said she hasn’t ruled out forming a national Parents Union, but wants each group to retain its own identity. She said she is working on a tool kit to help parents in other states replicate the organization’s framework.
Williams-Bolar said she would love to see Samuel’s concept catch on in all 50 states. “This is the new civil rights movement. I hope that we can be foot soldiers for education and foot soldiers for our children.”