With elections for Community and Citywide Education Councils (CEC) happening now through May 9, New York City is asking public school parents to vote on who will be their voice with the superintendent — as well as who will evaluate the superintendent’s performance. CEC members weigh in on school zoning, school construction and even school closings, among many other critical issues.
I have always been a huge proponent of voting local when it comes to making parental voices heard. I voted diligently for mayor, for city council, for state senator. I always assumed that change could only come at a high governmental level.
I learned differently when my third child was attending a public NYC high school. Previously, I used the excuse that I was too busy transporting younger children from place to place to engross myself in my older children’s schools. Oh, I volunteered. I chaperoned field trips and checked in guests at fundraisers and solicited donations for the auction and made a yearly donation. But those were all things that supported the status quo. They were not things that instigated change.
I could make all sorts of excuses. But the truth will still remain: I did nothing to instigate change at my children’s schools because I didn’t believe that one person could make a difference.
I wasn’t born in the United States. I was brought up by immigrant parents. I was told not to rock the boat, to go with the flow, to not make trouble — because not only will you fail, but you will make matters worse, guaranteed. Now that they know you’re a trouble-maker, they’ll be gunning for you.
So for over a decade, I kept quiet. Until my daughter asked for my help. When she started high school in September 2021, she was erroneously placed in Algebra 1, when she should have been in Geometry. She tried to rectify the situation herself, but she’d hit a wall. She wanted me to step in. I did not want to step in. For all of the reasons listed above.
My husband, on the other hand, was born in the U.S. As an African-American, he’d been taught to fight for everything, because nobody was going to hand him anything. He urged me to fight. So I fought. And I won. (Details on how, here.)
And that’s when I had my epiphany. One person could make a difference. Not just for my own child, but for other children, as well.
Still, I wasn’t quite confident enough yet to go it alone. I still took solace in numbers. I joined the executive board of my daughter’s parent-teacher association. And, yes, we raised money. Never let anyone say that raising money is unimportant. Money pays for change. But we also tackled issues like co-location, mold removal, technological needs and bell schedules.
When I volunteered at picture day for my daughter’s Upper Manhattan school, we had combs for kids who wanted to touch up their hair before the flash went off. This was Upper Manhattan. Multiple kids asked for picks. We did not have picks. Next year, we’ll have picks. I’ll make sure of that. (“Please don’t tell me you’re the face of that initiative,” my oldest son rolled his eyes when I told him.)
It sounds trivial. But I don’t think it is.
There are bigger issues, too. My daughter was having trouble in her Algebra 2 class. My husband, a math teacher, was spending hours with her every night to get her ready for the next day’s class. I asked her, “Are the other kids having problems like you?”
“Yes,” she said. “The teacher doesn’t explain it. She just does one problem on the board, then assumes we all got it and moves on.”
I vented to my husband, “What are the kids who don’t have math teacher dads to tutor them at home supposed to do?”
We didn’t want to overstep. We didn’t want to stick our noses in where they weren’t wanted. But then my daughter reported that only one student in the entire class got a passing grade on the latest assessment.
We decided we had to stick our noses in.
My husband called the teacher. He suggested that perhaps she should move slower through the material, and make sure everyone fully grasped it before moving on to the next topic. He mentioned some of the areas our daughter was having trouble in, and maybe other students were, too. He was polite. The teacher was polite. I was terrified. (But that, as my teen daughter would say, is a “me” problem.)
A few days later, I gathered up the courage to ask, “How are things going in math?”
“Better. She goes slower now, and, when she’s finished, she asks: Did everybody get that? Can I move on? She doesn’t look happy about it. But she does it.”
So often, parents, especially ones who don’t understand the system or, worse, have been conditioned to fear reprisal from any sort of system, believe they are powerless.
And that’s just not the case. Yes, you can take part in large movements to make large changes. You can weigh in on district-wide curriculum, on high-stakes testing, on admissions policies, on lunch menus and on graduation requirements.
But you can also contribute in a small, individual way. Hair picks. A single math class.
Raising a child can feel overwhelming. And school is such a huge part of that process. (A helpful tip from my mother: Don’t worry, whatever you decide to do for your child, you’ll be wrong.)
I have never met a parent who wasn’t interested in their child’s education. I have never met a parent who wasn’t interested in how they could help. But I have met many, many parents who either didn’t know what they could do or, like me, didn’t think there was anything they could do.
If I get one point across today, it’s that getting involved in your child’s school doesn’t have to mean running for a Community Education Council seat. It can mean voting for a Community Education Council seat. It can mean going to a Community Education Council meeting. It can mean speaking up at a Community Education Council meeting.
It doesn’t have to mean being head of the PTA. It can mean going to a PTA meeting. It can be telling the PTA, at their meeting, what you think should be changed. It can be volunteering for a couple of hours on picture day and realizing that we could use some hair picks next time.
Nothing is too big, and nothing is too small.
Now, we’re not guaranteeing that your actions won’t trigger some sort of retribution. We’re talking about thousands of schools with tens of thousands of teachers and administrators. Someone is bound to get petty. Nothing is without risk. But it is worth it.
You can do this. Your kids — all our kids — are counting on you.
Alina Adams is a mother of three and the author of “Getting Into NYC Kindergarten” and “Getting Into NYC High School.” She has written on educational issues for New York School Talk, the NY Daily News, the NY Post, Education Post, Mommy Poppins, Kweller, and the 74. Her website, NYCSchoolSecrets.com features articles, podcasts, webisodes, and more to help all parents learn all their school choices — and how to get them.