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Helping parents 'step up' in New London

Imagine the busy routine of a parent or guardian, juggling work, school, appointments, cooking, cleaning, and all the other things life throws at you. Now add to that the sinking feeling that you need help but just don’t know where and how to get it.

Step Up New London (SUNL) was derived from a feeling of lack. We saw the holes in the resources and lack of support given to our community, especially for Black and brown families. The only solutions at the time were parent trainings offered by schools and local social service agencies. However, they focused on "fixing" parents by putting emphasis on our actions, not addressing the systems that are creating the disparities we experience. When trying to support our children’s education, we are often left to navigate a complex system alone.

Our district neglects to ask the important questions fearing the answers will leave them legally liable. They’d never outwardly ask if you or your child ever experienced racism in schools or if there’s something they can do better. On the contrary, they dismiss the claims or attempt to disprove them.

So we took matters into our own hands. We developed workshops, brought in regional and national experts in anti-racism, community organizing, and systemic change. We began building a network of parents and allies to develop a community of support needed to hold community leaders and decision-makers accountable. Our approach supports leadership development and civic engagement but focuses on institutional and systemic change.

In 2019, we launched our Parents Agenda Campaign to reimagine and achieve a substantial shift in the New London Public School system. Based on firsthand experiences of 89 parents, students, staff, and community partners, our results graded the district a D. The number one problem parents and students have with the school system is accountability. This report was a pivotal step in parent organizing because it uplifted the narrative of our communities' experiences, and supported identifying specific policies, practices and procedures needing to be addressed. Since then, we have been working to ensure that the solutions identified are also being implemented.

New London is more diverse than other cities in the state. You can see a large disparity in wealth, income and homeownership as it relates to race. In New London, approximately 1 out of every 3.5 residents live in poverty. 56 percent of homes are occupied by renters (compared to 30 percent in the state), 55 percent of those renters are cost-burdened. In 2018-19, the most recent “normal” completed school year, 83 percent of our student body in NLPS were students of color, 47 percent lived in single-parent households headed by women, and 82 percent qualified for free/reduced lunch. Black (12.4 percent), Latino (9 percent), and students with special needs (12.3 percent) were suspended and expelled at much higher rates compared to their white peers in the district and the state (6.5 percent). According to the state Department of Education’s District Profile and Report, NLPS white students' discipline data was suppressed because the number was so low. In addition, approximately 1 in 10 Black students and 2 in 10 Latino students are meeting college readiness standards compared to 5 in 10 white students.

How do we create an education system that actually works for people of color? We recognize that these systems are deep-rooted in white supremacy, they were not designed for us. One of our focus areas is to push for mandatory anti-racism training for all administrators, educators, and staff (not cultural competency or diversity training).

Based on the state Department of Education, New London District Profile and Performance Report for the 2019-2020 school year, “There are intentional strategies being implemented to reduce racial isolation of staff. A Minority Recruitment and Retention Committee is currently active.” Within that same report, the New London school district claims that “engaging families in student learning continues to be a high priority for the district. Several new practices currently being implemented include … online newsletter, improved social media presence, partnership with community organizations …”

Our results were presented to the New London Board of Education, the Superintendent, Central Office Administration, and the NLPS District Equity Leadership Team. NLPS’s response has ranged from various levels of aggression (even referencing potential legal action on two separate occasions), dismissiveness, gaslighting, and redirection.

Maegan Parrott is Co-Director & Community Organizer of Step Up New London, a Black and brown parent-led organization. For more information visit www.stepupnewlondon.com.

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