Friday, April 3, 2015

Moms on a Mission

Yesterday, I used this platform to encourage parents to add their voice to the national conversation about education.  

Today, I'm excited to share two parents who have done just that in my local community as part of the Idea Chasers series.  Idea Chasers focuses on people with ideas, how they go about implementing them, what kinds of obstacles they face, and how they reach their goals.  I love talking about ideas of all shapes and sizes, and education is one of my favorite topics. 

About a year ago, Elizabeth McGowan and Maggie Harr met online while researching candidates for the local school board election.  They found common ground in their desire to make information about the candidates and the events of school board meetings more accessible to parents in the community.  Moms on a Mission was the result, a Facebook-based online tool that provides monthly reports of school board meetings and in-depth interviews with current directors and candidates.  

I had the opportunity to turn the tables and interview the two of them and here's what they had to say about their experience so far:

Why did you decide to center your education action piece around the school board? 

Maggie: My experience as a mother of a school-aged child was to be involved in his classroom and school. Most of the parents I know are the same way. With the increasing challenges facing our growing district, our classroom teachers make every effort to keep the classroom environment an optimal place for all children to learn. However, the district level decisions are having a greater impact by increasing class sizes and reducing resources. The school board ultimately are the ones tasked with approving all of the policy that affects our children and yet, the opportunities to see them at work are limited to a monthly meeting.

Elizabeth:  The school board makes really important decisions that directly affect our kids and community. I learn something new at every meeting, and it's pretty unreal how far the ripple rolls as a result of those decisions. There was very little parent input and we felt the need to reach out to our fellow parents to ensure decisions weren't being made without them. The board is supposed to represent the wishes of the community. They can't do that if they don't hear from us.

What is the number one goal you hope to accomplish through Moms on a Mission?

Maggie: We have a three part mission: to inform, engage and create accountability. At the heart of our efforts is offering busy parents a way to stay connected to the important decisions that are being made at the district level and to encourage communication with our elected board members so that they make decisions that reflect our community.

Elizabeth:  We bring what happens at the board meetings right to parents' computer screens, and in doing so, encourage them to be more deeply informed and to advocate for their families.  It's unrealistic to think that everyone in our community can attend a 2-5 hour meeting each month. Also, the education system is really complicated, and full of scary acronyms. If you don't understand the system, the meetings can be, at times, hard to follow. It was definitely a sharp learning curve for me as someone without an education background!

Maggie:  It's also important to us to provide parents and stakeholders another opportunity to access the information necessary to be an informed voter.  This will ensure that our district is one of the best in the state.

Have you met any resistance to your project, and if so, how have you dealt with that?

Elizabeth:   Well, if you're going to end up doing a few news segments about the school board's lack of action, you're probably not going to get a real warm welcome when you show up to the school board meetings. (Although to be fair, some of the board members are as frustrated with the gridlock as we are!) Also, if you have any sort of personal presence online, you'll need to be prepared for attacks and people lashing out at you. This week someone told me that public education was a liberal agenda. Ha! Can you imagine? That kind of commentary only makes me want to work harder to create more non-political and kid-focused conversations with parents. People want their kids have a great school experience. They don't need that to be politicized. 

Maggie:   Most of my experiences have been that of encouragement and parents thankful to have the "inside scoop" on important issues facing our district. All but one of the current Board of Education members and four out of seven Board of Education candidates have sat down to interviews. Any of the negative feedback that I've received has been centered around those individuals that have chosen not to speak with us as a parent group. That to me is concerning and only fuels me to keep going. 

What has been the most surprising thing you've learned over the last year?

Maggie: I have been surprised to see the actions and statements made by some board members, without a clear channel to address my concerns. If a parent has a question, problem or needs assistance with a staff member or administrator, even another student, there are clearly outlined channels to take. Unfortunately, that is not the case with our school board members. It is frustrating to have no way to address the people making important decisions that greatly impact your children's education.

Elizabeth:  There isn't a clear channel of action to hold board members accountable if they are not following the code of ethics or upholding their oath of office. That concerns me. We have direct violations that continue without consequence. Every elected office should offer a clear set of checks and balances. 

What is something you'd like your readers to know about you that they may not know?

Maggie:  The biggest thing that I get asked is why I do this. Am I looking to run for school board, did my child have a bad experience, am I bored? And the answer to all of those questions is "No."  I have a huge bias and am very up front about my agenda... my kids. I am not looking for political gain and am a huge supporter of public education for my community regardless of the personal choices I make for each of my children. I am a busy mom, volunteer in the community and take on more projects than I have time to complete. However, I saw the need and I want to do everything in my power to make sure that our fabulous educators have the support and resources necessary to do their jobs.

Elizabeth:  That taking a few minutes to read the newsletter and then send your thoughts and concerns via email to board members has incredible impact. It's also a way for parents to have an action piece to their child advocacy. If you don't get a response: blast them. Social media is an incredible tool. Make it your Facebook post. Let your friends know your thoughts when you're at a six hour little league marathon. Just talk about it! We can't surrender these decisions to our elected officials. We have to take action and have a voice.

It was a privilege to hear from these two parents.  One of the themes that came up in our conversation more than once is the idea that all of our small action pieces come together to form and shape education policy and our school community.  These women realize that all families cannot attend board meetings and do not expect every family to make that a priority, but they can attend those meetings for them and share the responsibility by reporting the decisions that are being made.  All parents have something to bring to the table and Moms on a Mission hopes to encourage parents to identify what that action piece is and get involved.  

For more information on Moms on a Mission, you can visit their Facebook page.  


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