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Young Education Leader Profile: Sharhonda Bossier

SB Profile Pic (2).jpgParents are children's most important teachers and advocates. But parent voices--particularly the voices of parents of underserved students--are often absent from public debates about education reform, and many parents feel powerless to change a system that persistently fails to serve their children. Sharhonda Bossier is working to change that. As the Deputy Director of Families for Excellent Schools, she leads and supports that organization's work to organize and mobilize families in support of aggressive education reform. Raised in the Watts area of Los Angeles, she earned her Bachelor's degree and Master's in education from the University of California Santa Cruz and taught in Austin, Texas and Brooklyn before shifting to organizing parents full-time. She lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

What does Families for Excellent Schools do?
We are an organization that partners with the highest-performing charters in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut to organize and mobilize their families around education and education reform issues. We do this through four key strategies:

First, we educate and organize parents. Through our parent training program we build parents' basic civic knowledge and skills to be organizers and advocates in their own communities and schools. We organize parents by neighborhoods chapters. We've divided NYC into neighborhood zones and have assigned organizers to build a chapter in each community in order to create a sustained grassroots pressure for education reform.

Second, we mobilize large numbers of parents a few times a year to demonstrate broad support for education reform and build power and influence. Recently in Connecticut we mobilized parents to demonstrate support for charter schools. Last year in early June we had 5,000 parents attend a rally aimed and demonstrating our strength to the then-developing field of Mayoral candidates. Right as people were throwing hats in the ring, we organized parents to send a message of, "don't ignore us, we're organized, we're effective, we care."

Third, we catalyze or join coalitions. We have a reputation for playing well with others in the sandbox and that's important to broaden our reach. Because charter schools are a small segment of the population, it's important we forge coalitions with other community and education reform groups, from ConnCAN, to Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration, to 500 Black Men. Sometimes this means we're working on issues that are not directly related to education reform, but we're building trust with our partners.

Finally, we work with parents to take political action. This includes registering parents to vote, turning them out on Election Day, encouraging them to canvass or phone bank.

I guide our executive team's work together to enable this work--a kind of Chief of Staff role. I lead, develop, and run all our parent trainings. I develop the curriculum, lead trainings, and develop other members of our staff to train. I also lead part of our NYC campaign work.

Some of my readers may not be familiar with the concept of organizing--what does it actually mean to organize parents and families to improve their children's education?
This is a big conversation in education right now. Organizing is about helping make individual struggles political. If one parent is struggling with the public school system, that's an individual problem, but if two parents come together, they can tap their power and begin to make change in their community. The thing that distinguishes the kind of organizing we do is that we are committed to being around for a long time, to putting down roots in the community and building local leadership.

Why is organizing families important?
The education reform movement for a long time was able to focus efforts on people with power--Mayors, chancellors, etc.--but didn't think about developing roots in the communities most impacted by reform. As some of those powerful allies move on, a lot of valuable reforms are at risk of being rolled back. The only way to prevent that is by developing sustained infrastructure and support in communities.

What are the challenges of doing this kind of work?
If you ask parents who speaks for them or who knows what's best for kids, they are not likely to say any reformer or reform advocacy organization. They're most likely to identify with their kid's teacher. By focusing at the grasstops and on people with power, the reform movement has ceded parents to the teachers unions and to community organizations that are not pro-reform. A lot of community-based organizations have close ties to the unions or are funded by them and we're playing catch up.

Before you started doing this, you were a teacher--how is organizing similar to or different from teaching?
I was a social science teacher--U.S. history and government and a senior social science elective. I saw my role as a social science teacher as getting kids excited about changing the world around them, thinking about power, who has it, and how you can gain and utilize power. Organizing is similar to that. A lot of parents come from communities with historically low rates of civic participation and engagement because they don't think they have any power or don't see the value of changing things, so we need to show them how they can have power and get them excited about making change.

Organizing is different in the sense that it's not as linear as people would like to believe. We're talking about real people and having to respond to a political reality that changes quite often in the places where we work.

Why did you get involved in education reform?
When I took on this job, if someone had said "Are you an education reformer?" I would have said I didn't know what that means. I was a teacher and had done some volunteer work in campaigns and run the caucus for my precinct when I lived in Texas. I was in the classroom for 5 years, but I didn't want to become grade team lead, department chair, principal, which were the logical next steps to advance in my career. (This is one of the big challenges of keeping people who are good teachers in the field, by the way, the limited range of options for advancement that our system offers.)

I wanted to do something else and figured this was a good way to combine my experience on campaigns and passion for civic engagement.

Who are some of your heroes/mentors/people you respect whose examples shape your work?
Dr. Howard Fuller. The thing I admire about him is that long before it was cool he was an education reformer and he was trying to do what he thought was best for kids.

Jeremiah Kittredge, our Executive Director. In starting Families for Excellent Schools, he took a risk by asking for a long time, selling people on the value of parent organizing when they didn't believe there was any real value to it at all. This is his gut paying off and people are starting to come to the recognition that it matters. It's hard to take that risk when you're young.

My U.S. History teacher, Cynthia Lee. She and I are still in contact. She allowed me to start a student group and get a bunch of kids in high school to volunteer on mayoral campaigns. That was critical in that it got me hooked on politics and interested in changing community.

What is your long-term goal?
Fundamentally change the way schools see their relationship with parents. Parents can and should be doing more than volunteering. They should really be leading the community engagement work on behalf of their schools. They're the people who benefit and have roots in community. My hope is also that the work we do empowers parents to transform their communities beyond the public schools. I hope that the skills they learn from us translate to other areas and they begin to see themselves as agents of change in other parts of their lives. Finally, I want to shift the way elected officials and power players see these communities. By and large the communities where we work are ignored because the people in them don't participate in the electoral process. You can say to people: You may not have a lot of money, but you have time, skills, expertise. You can't write a check but a canvasser is often more valuable to a campaign.

What interests do you have outside of work?
I'm a runner. I ran the NYC half marathon a few weeks ago. I like reading. I really enjoy cooking. I'm the oldest of 8 kids and I really enjoy spending time with my family.

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