Union and Parents Join Forces to Improve School Conditions
Sitting between the more prominent cities of Philadelphia to the east and Pittsburgh to the west, Reading might seem like the city Pennsylvania forgot. But the once thriving railroad community is still one of the prime properties on the Monopoly game board, and there is a group of Reading education activists determined to make sure all students pass Go.
Miriam Feliciano is one of the Reading School District’s most effective activists, but she’d say she’s just being a good mom.
When her son Luis told her there were no doors on any of the stalls in the bathrooms at school, Feliciano marched into Thomas Ford Elementary and hung a shower curtain in one. Soon, Luis said, all the boys were lining up to use “his bathroom.”
Then Luis began complaining of the unbearable heat in the building. When he came home with a headache and a high fever, Feliciano rushed him to the emergency room where she was told he was severely dehydrated and needed to be given special serum at the hospital. The heat in the school had reached 120 degrees that day.
That’s when Feliciano began to organize. She collected signatures of the other parents and staff at the school. She took pictures and collected evidence about the conditions in the building, filling a three-ring binder.
“I worked for fifteen years at law firm in Puerto Rico,” she says. “I knew I needed to build a case.”
Then she took her binder and her 200 parent signatures to the Reading School District board meeting. The next day, there were contractors at the school installing air conditioners in classrooms and doors on bathroom stalls.
“That’s the power of parents,” says Bob Miller, president of the Reading Education Association (REA). “When you engage the parents – who are also the voters – the school board responds.”
Feliciano is now the president of the Thomas Ford Elementary Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). And the goal of the REA, the Reading School District, and the Pennsylvania PTA is to recruit parents like Feliciano to head up new PTAs at every school in the district. So far there are two PTAs in place, with two expected by the end of this school year, and the rest to be established by next school year’s end.
A Town in Transition
It wasn’t that long ago that there was a very strong PTA presence in Reading. But those parents have since moved out to the suburbs, taking their substantial tax base with them. Their once stately single family homes have been converted into multifamily apartments that house the new Hispanic population, which comprises nearly 60 percent of the city’s residents.
Reading is now the poorest city in the state, the sixth poorest in the country, and the schools reflect that poverty. Teachers who work in the Reading School District are on the lowest salary scale in Pennsylvania, and there is little to no local funding for the schools.
“We know that improving education offers a way out of poverty,” says Miller, who is also a Reading High School social studies teacher. “And one of the best ways to improve education, and turn around our schools, is to engage and involve the parents.”
Parents who are involved at the schools not only improve the academic achievement of their children, they also feel more involved in the community. That leads to civic pride and the desire to work hard and give back to the community they call home.
Tapping into Parent Potential
This year, the Reading Education Association Community Committee (REACC), which has been reaching out to parents and community organizations, including faith-based organizations, since 2007, established a Parent Engagement Committee.
They invited participation from the president of the state PTA and the regional PTA, the director of the Pennsylvania Parent Information and Resource Center and other education stakeholders from the community. As a result of the meetings, the committee agreed on the need to organize the parents in every school building under the PTA.
The District began to attend coalition meetings with the REACC, and started to see that cooperating with this group was the best way to engage parents and to establish PTAs in all the schools.
Miller attributes this spirit of cooperation to the new acting superintendent. Until he came on board last winter, Miller says the door to the district was not only locked, it was staunchly defended.
“When they saw me, the head of the union, they thought, oh no, here comes a problem. Now the district understands that we want to collaborate,” he says. “We’re no longer the enemy; we’re part of the solution.” As NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign advocates, one of the best ways to transform a school is to develop strong relationships between unions, district leaders, administrators and staff, as well as strong connections between schools, parents and their communities.
In cooperation with REA, the district drafted the “Parent and Community Outreach Initiative,” which is a blueprint for engaging parents in a unified way across the district. A key component of the initiative is setting up PTAs at every school.
“We know there are concerned parents in Reading,” says Reading School District Community Outreach Liaison Philip McNeil Santoro. “But many haven’t become involved in the schools because they felt unwanted, uninvited, or were afraid because of language barriers. An established PTA helps bring down those barriers.”
PTA’s Proven Track Record
The PTA is the voice of parents in the state of Pennsylvania, and establishing an association at every school provides consistency from school to school. If one school has questions, they can ask another PTA, and they can share resources and strategies for engagement. The PTA has a long history of parental engagement, and has the resources, tools, and trainings to help produce strong parent leaders in Reading – leaders like Miriam Feliciano
“The PTA president at the Thomas Ford Elementary School has set a very high bar for the Reading School District,” says McNeil Santoro. “She’s the gold standard.”
But Feliciano says she’s only just begun. The hottest months are coming, and there are only 16 air conditioners in her school. She wants one for every room, and she knows the school board will listen to her.
“When I first went to the board, they asked, ‘who are you?’” says Feliciano. “I said I’m a mom. But now I can say I’m a mom, and I’m the president of the PTA.”