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74 Interview: Parent Activist Mary Moran on Engaging Families and Demanding Accountability in New Orleans Schools

By Beth Hawkins | March 26, 2018

See previous 74 interviews, including 2017 Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee, former education secretary John King, and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. The full archive is right here.

As an Afro-Latina born to Salvadoran parents attending south Los Angeles schools, Mary Moran had a very different background from her Mexican-American and African-American classmates. But having roots in both communities taught Moran to be a bridge-builder from an early age.

That experience propelled Moran to a life of advocacy and organizing, which included a stint on the staff of the group Parent Revolution in Los Angeles, where she led a successful parent-driven middle school turnaround. She also headed up grassroots education lobbying campaigns in several states, including Louisiana, where Moran got to know members of several Latin American immigrant communities that had come to literally rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Because the city’s schools operated independently at the time, there were no schools where the Latino community was concentrated, so students with language barriers and other needs were going unserved. So in December 2014, Moran and fellow organizer Henry Jones founded Our Voice Nuestra Voz, a grassroots effort to bring Latino parents together to advocate for their children’s educations.

The group’s most recent parent campaign, #30NolaEdWatch, is an attempt to draw attention to the city’s lackluster school report cards released last fall — 30 of New Orleans’ 72 schools got Ds or Fs after a decade of steady, dramatic improvement and three years of academic plateaus.

Parents, Moran says, were shocked. Most had assumed their child was the only one doing poorly, and learning that as few as 1 in 10 kids could read or do math at grade level propelled the organization’s members to act.

As state overseers return authority over New Orleans public schools to an elected local school board, Moran talked The 74 about Our Voice Nuestra Voz, the issues parents have exposed, and the opportunity posed by the ongoing reunification process.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: What led you to start Our Voice/Nuestra Voz?

Moran: Greater New Orleans has always had a lot of Latino families, whether because of the relationship between Central America and the fruit companies in southern Louisiana, or the Cuban resettlement that happened in the ’60s and ’70s, to post-Hurricane Katrina, where you had folks from Mexico and Central America, specifically Honduras, who have come to literally rebuild the city, clean up the debris, gut the houses.

We started seeing unaccompanied minors coming to the States — it wasn’t just Louisiana, but because of our unique, decentralized [school] system, if you have 20 new students at any one school that now need a specific level of service and curriculum and programming, that changes everything.

We started talking to [community groups that] had a grasp on all the services that were needed. It was clear that they weren’t going to take on education as a mission in the sense of starting to work with the public school system. And the education advocacy organizations that did exist weren’t going to start hiring Latino organizers. At that point, we knew that there was a need and we could do a lot of great work.

So we quit our jobs without having funding — about six months later we got some — and have since been doing a lot of work around things that families and schools deal with every day, like translation issues. Now, we’re entering some of the more intensive parts of the work, which is about how do we build a decentralized system that can really support all students, and specifically students who are learning English as a second language.

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Nuestra Voz has grown pretty quickly. Can you talk about the momentum?

Over the last 2½ years we have been able to build a base of parents who advocate for their children and for the city’s children. We have a bit over 2,500 members in our network. We have an organizing base — leaders who have gone through our program, who are active in our campaigns — of about 200 parents.

In the beginning, we did not have a base of knowledge of Latino families — who they are, where they’re from, what languages they speak, what their concerns are.

One of our very first campaigns was called 4WARD. We trained parents to survey other parents. We created a survey with 400 parents and created a community report that then helped us talk to policymakers, school leaders, and other folks in the system who wanted to learn more about this newer population of students and families.

We trained parent ambassadors to help other parents navigate the centralized enrollment system, which is unique and at times difficult. We also won differentiated funding, creating an equitable funding formula for all students in our city, including English language learners.

More recently, we had a campaign called It’s Your Right. Parents have a right for their children to be safe in schools and able to learn. We believe that the presence of police, of [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], of law enforcement interfere with that right. So we moved to have Orleans Parish and the Orleans Parish School Board adopt a resolution that protected immigrant students and their right to learn, as well as a policy that limited all law enforcement from entering into schools without a process and a signed warrant.

After that, we started meeting with some of the bigger charter management networks that had more Latino students, along with the Recovery School District and Orleans Parish School Board to create the first English language learner guidebook in the state.

When the Trump administration rescinded DACA, we mobilized. It was amazing to see: In the Deep South, from one day to the next, we could move over 300 people — teachers, families, students, DACA students — against the administration and to demand that DACA be reinstated.

Tell us about your current campaign.

When scores came out in the fall we learned that out of the 72 schools in our city, 30 of them had been graded D and F. We knew that there were over 15,000 children in these schools. We were expecting outrage from the education community. I think folks were more surprised than anything by the scores. We started talking to parents in schools that had been a C before and had dropped to a D, or had been a D and slipped to an F. We created a flyer with a ton of information. We did a number of different things, from knocking on doors to working the carpool lines. Parents were very receptive. What we kept hearing was that they didn’t know. They understood their child was having some trouble reading or with their math homework, but they didn’t know their whole school was a D or an F.

Did the grading system change or is school performance slipping?

Last year as a city, we were at a B average. This year we are at a C average. It was indeed that school performance had dropped. Parents had internalized that it was perhaps because of something that they did or didn’t do, or their own reading capacity, that their child didn’t know how to read and write and compute. That’s not true.

But when they learned the information that we were giving — that 10 percent, and in some schools 15 percent, of children were on grade level reading — they were like, “So you’re telling me that out of 400 students at our school, only 40 of them are on grade level reading?”

It was alarming to them. Frankly, parents became very angry. Parents started talking more to their schools, but also didn’t know exactly where they should go for more information, where they should go if they wanted to escalate and talk to someone else about their school’s performance.

For all these reasons, we decided to launch #30NolaEdWatch. This is a campaign that’s led by parents that calls for transparency, calls for very specific strategies at both the networks and a citywide level, at the Orleans Parish School Board, calling for them to put forward strategies that would drastically improve school performance. Essentially, it’s about putting those 30 D and F schools on watch.

What’s the response been?

People are very angry. One thing for sure is that everyone in our city cares about our children. That’s our families and our parents, people who work in education, work in innovation, people who lead our schools. But some networks, we know that every single one of their schools was a D or F. So although they care about our schools, we have to have honest conversations about why.

We got a lot of pushback. Parents started going into schools and talking to their principals about they had gotten this flyer, and was this true? Why had no one notified them? Or: “We knew this, but you said things would get better. Things have not gotten better.”

School leaders started having meetings and communication with parents. This is positive, right? Because that didn’t happen the year before, even though some of those scores were similar.

We started getting a lot of people calling us saying, “Tell us, what’s the end goal of your campaign?” Very simple: We want more transparency. We want more leadership. We want specific strategies as people are building out their school improvement plans: Have you talked to parents about that? How are parents understanding [how] they should work within those strategies? We would sort of put it back on them.

A lot of these schools have been Ds and Fs for a number of years, and everything they’ve tried has either had small success or hasn’t worked. At this point, there is a huge opportunity to do this work in partnership with organizations that are leading education advocacy in our city, and with parents and communities.

Have there been schools where people have said, “Hey, you know what? You’re right. Let’s talk”?

There were school leaders who said, “We need to do things differently.” But most low-performing networks or schools have not. The ones that have, we have helped with preparing for parent meetings and having those conversations. We’ve been supportive to them in figuring out how to make sure that the input that families give or families want is something that schools can take and plug into the strategies that they’re moving forward.

When New Orleans schools moved to reunification, at least rhetorically, one of the reasons was so that the community and families could participate in the conversation. Could you say a little about the context?

The opportunity is for the Orleans Parish School Board to step up, to lead, and hold [schools] accountable. For the community, for parents, and for everyone who is watching, to see OPSB demonstrate that it can have goals and inspiring leadership, that it can do this work of improving school performance, making sure we have the transparency and the talent and are building all the pipelines that we need in order to again grow the performance of our city.

It needs to do that in partnership with communities, and in partnership with teachers, and in partnership with everyone who is doing the work in our city. Unification is about doing that work together.

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