Building the Bridge Between the System and Families

I am new to the GO Public Schools Oakland team, but I am not new to education politics and policy. 

Thomas with his students in Miami in 2007.

I began my career as a high school special education teacher in a predominantly black and latinx neighborhood Miami. I was the son of two public school teachers, white, and had grown up in a small mostly white community. As a 22 year-old, right out of college, I suddenly found myself in a vastly different context. I lived and worked in the neighborhood of my school – a vibrant, working class, and largely immigrant community. My students would see me walking to school, they saw me in the grocery store. It was important to me that I was a member of the community I was serving. 

As an eager young teacher, I understood the value of “parent engagement” but didn’t truly understand what it took to authentically live out that value. During the first week of school, I set a goal to make a personal phone call to each of the parents of the 120 students that passed through my doors and report some “good news.” After a long day of teaching, setting aside time to call parents and make home visits meant I would have to sacrifice cooking dinner or going for a run. My job was not built to authentically engage parents and my school did not offer support. 

From that first experience in Miami; to being a social worker at the Harlem Children’s Zone, a public charter school in New York City; and then as a district administrator overseeing teacher hiring and diversity for Boston Public Schools, one lesson has become clear to me: those closest to the problem are closest to the solution. At the same time, like my experience in Miami, I have learned that our public schools and systems are not built to truly partner with families. 

I joined GO because it sits at the threshold between the district and families. We fill a void that our public institutions are not designed to fill by building the bridge. Parents must have a seat at the table alongside educators, school leaders, district staff, and elected officials. We convene. We consolidate parent power. We organize. We develop community leaders. We propose solutions. Having worked from within the system to drive positive changes for students and families, I am excited to join the GO team to help draw families who are left outside the system, into it to shift the balance of power of who is making decisions. 

“Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”   

I am convinced that parents and families must be driving and creating solutions to the most pressing challenges our schools face. At the same time, I know from my time in schools and district front offices that very real barriers stand in the way of parents claiming their rightful seat at the table where decisions are made about their children’s education. 

This is just as true in Oakland as it was in other cities I have worked. Just last week, at the first OUSD school board meeting of the year, I was in awe of the strong presence of parents from The Oakland REACH who showed up in droves to demand “quality schools now.” About 75 parents stood in solidarity with each other, side-by-side in bright yellow shirts to send a message to the board and the superintendent that as the school year opens, they are still here and they are still demanding more for their kids from a system that has failed to deliver quality options in all neighborhoods. 

“Control the agenda, control the outcome.” 

This first meeting was an opportunity for the Board and Superintendent Johnson-Trammell to speak candidly to the collective demands of these parents. But the Board’s agenda that night (and many other nights) was either carelessly constructed or deliberately designed to limit authentic parent involvement. Important issues that were pressing for families took a backseat to a lengthy public celebration of a corporate partner that had provided services to Oakland families at a discounted rate. Public comment was delayed by an hour. As the corporate sponsors were given ample time at the mic and photos were taken on the dais with board members, parents patiently waited for their turn at the mic– parents with children in tow, playing and reading in between the folding chairs; parents texting their family members to say they’d be late for dinner; parents watching their quality family time before bedtime tick down. While community partners matter, families must be given the priority. 

These decisions are small, but they are powerful. Agendas don’t spontaneously appear, people make them. And they signal to parents who has real power and whose interests matter. A long-held principle of community organizing cautions “Whoever controls the agenda, controls the outcome.” 

It wasn’t until 9:30pm that the board shifted their focus to discussing the superintendent’s workplan for the year ahead– arguably the most critical agenda item and one that would be much richer if it were informed by authentic parent perspectives. At that point in the night the gymnasium had mostly emptied out. 

That week’s Board meeting agenda is a symbol of the disconnect that exists between decision-makers inside the system and community members looking in from the outside. Certainly, limited district resources and an already overworked staff with a daunting list of priorities leaves little space for the district to truly partner with the community. But two things are true – they can and must do better to engage parents and families, and GO has an important role to play in filling this void. As I step into my new role at GO to lead our policy and advocacy efforts in Oakland, I look forward to partnering with parents, families, and a diverse group of stakeholders to not only inform our policy work, but to continue to build that bridge between our community and the “system”. 

As I immerse myself in the work, I would love to meet with you to discuss GO’s work and the year ahead. Please feel free to reach out at: tmaffai@gopublicschools.org

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