Parent: What I Saw, Learned and Enjoyed at #NPEChicago

Like most public school parents, I try to discern how to simultaneously support our schools and teachers while also figuring out ways to make sure that the educational experience our kids receive is constantly improving and moving in the right direction. That’s one reason I serve on the board of the Network for Public Education (NPE), the group that brings together like-minded public school advocates around the country since, really, it’s the same fight everywhere.

Budget cuts, disconnected from reality legislators disconnected from reality, lack of equity in financing of our schools, a pliable and passive media, easy-sounding false solutions, teachers frustrated to the point of leaving the profession . . . all of these things are at once local and national phenomena, and they aren’t accidental. This past weekend, once again the NPE annual conference in Chicago, like the inaugural meeting in Austin last spring, had the sensation of drinking water from a proverbial firehose, but in a good way. There was lots of stimulating, thought-provoking, assumption-shaking information and conversation, and the chance to engage in small groups and one-on-ones with real heroes of the movement fighting for real, effective and educator-based improvements that will strenghthen our nation’s public schools for all students. Featured conversations between Diane Ravitch and union leaders, a funny and

Yong Zhao keynote at #NPEChicago 2015

Yong Zhao keynote at #NPEChicago 2015

serious keynote by Yong Zhao, an opening conversation between high school junior Tanaisa Brown of the Newark Students Union and Journey for Justice veteran Jitu Brown, and a lunchtime conversation netween three notable bloggers Jennifer Berkshire of, Peter Greene of and Jose Vilson of— all of those plenary sessions were enlightening and entertaining.

I will break down some of the personal highlights for me— although by its nature with six or seven panels happening at the same time, no one person can take it all in, so this is not in any way meant to be comprehensive— it just reflects the people and sessions I was lucky enough to see and that I found especially compelling.

To me, the Debunking Myths panel, featuring skilled messaging craftsman Jeff Bryant of the Education Opportunity Network and, as well as rising stars Hilary Tone of Media Matters and Diallo Brooks, from People for the American Way, was indeed a real highlight, as was the one on Effective Messaging Around Assessment (basically, Too Much Damned Testing, and it works with Ds and Rs!), led by Bob Shaeffer from and some parent/teacher advocates form NJ and NY. I also loved the time I spent with the creators and directors of Go Public: A Day in the Life of an American School District, Dawn and Jim O’Keeffe, along with their colleague in film Shannon Puckett, whose new film Defies Measurement (See post Film Review: Defies Measurement weaves together problematic purposes of ed reform) about a middle school in California, is truly a tour de force. Other panels I attended at least parts of were one on Community Schools, led by former Tennessee legislator and Knoxville teacher Gloria Johnson and educators from Pennsylvania and Oklahoma and the Southern Education Foundation’s Katherine Dunn on the New Diverse Majority, featuring educators from South Carolina and Mississippi about some distinct ways of fighting for equity in education.

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 10.52.32 AMAnd finally, I was very happy that the College Access panel led by Nicole Hurd of the College Advising Corps  went so well and was attended by so many key people learning about this brilliant program. The panel also featured others from her group and Claire Dennison of the peer organization and collaborator uAspire.  With college access and affordability such a critical and vexing issue for social mobility, I wish could be could be in many more schools (than the current 500 in 20 states ) doing the vital work of knocking down barriers and making college a reality for more students who deserve a life beyond their immediate circumstances. There are several aspects of the program that appeal to me— first and foremost that it harnesses the idealistic enthusiasm of recent college graduates and gives them a doable task that they are qualified to do— “near peer” advising of high school students with academic potential but in need of some extra help on the application and financial aid processes of actually going to college. Other interesting features of the advising corps approach are that it always partners with an institution of higher education and that the adviser is there to assist the professional counseling staff— and that in fact the district agrees not to replace any school counselors but instead to use the college advisers as supplemental help with a specific focus on the high-promise/low-resourced students in their application process. I have also seen the program in action at our local high school, Clarke Central in Athens, GA, where my daughter is a senior. These college advisers are effectively opening college opportunities to students who would have traditionally been less likely to attend college and it is such a key component to affording more students a chance at a academic success beyond high school.

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 9.05.59 AMOne of my favorite short interludes at the conference was a quick pizza I shared with some teachers and parents from Toledo who were interested in a community screening of the Go Public film we did in Athens last fall— it felt like a real good reason to bring people together to find ways to spread knowledge, share ideas, gain new understandings and have some fun in the midst of it all. I am already looking forward to next year’s conference and I hope NPE can continue to successfully execute the seemingly simple act of bringing people together. It’s so worth it. And meanwhile quite a bit of the conference, about half of the panels, streamed live and are now being archived on the NPE website (a labor of love for a committed high school teacher, Vincent Precht of Burbank CA, and his website

All in all, NPE Chiacgo 2015 was an excellent conference and provided opportunities to network organizations from the across the United States, new perspectives and tons of information— I was made aware of lots of new links, addresses, business cards, and films.

Bertis Downs, Parent and NPE Board Member

Bertis Downs, Parent and NPE Board Member

So tune in, clue in, thank a teacher, volunteer, mentor, donate, call a state legislator, support your local school— but whatever you do, please don’t give up on public education. We cannot do that. Fight for them and fight for all our kids. Make no mistake, this past weekend reminded me again that the tide is indeed turning back toward the real work of providing good schools for all kids, and to fulfilling the real promise of public education: each child perpared for life.

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