A VOICE FOR PARENTS
CURTIS KNAPP PHOTOGRAPH
On the surface, Angela Daliet could look like a typical mother of multiple children: stressed, sleep deprived and edgy.
Mother of three boys 13 and under, she deals with school buses arriving at dawn, homework and sporting events scheduled 200 miles away, just like all parents who juggle work and parental responsibilities.
But Daliet’s brand of motherhood stretches beyond the typical – she has expanded her mothering to include all New Orleans school-aged children. As the founder of Save Our Schools, an organization dedicated to giving parents a voice in the city’s ever evolving school systems, she has turned herself into New Orleans’ most recognized public school parent.
When a print or television news reporter needs a quote from a parent on an education issue, Daliet is either readily available at the news event or just a call away. She is also ready with an alternative viewpoint, a view that rarely dovetails with the standard wisdom of the day.
“I am a parent who felt wronged by the system,” she says. “I keep pushing, pushing and not taking no for an answer. I’m like that anyway.”
She is no fan of officials’ love affair with semi-autonomous, public charter schools, and she’s upfront about her concerns. Even though she insists she’s not opposed to charter schools, she sees many problems with the model that aren’t being addressed, including burdensome transportation costs, their inaccessibility to all students and the development of a new kind of class structure that regulates the poorest children to the worst schools.
“For the most part, [the problems] are being overlooked or swept under the rug,” Daliet says. Even worse, “Parents don’t have real access to change the climate.”
The “rough road” that led her to parent activism and charter school criticism started after Hurricane Katrina, when she was exiled to north Louisiana. Her rented house near the New Orleans-Metairie line took 10 feet of water, and Edward Hynes Elementary where her boys were enrolled, then located in Lakeview, was also damaged. Without a school for her children to attend, she couldn’t return.
She was told that Hynes wouldn’t reopen until 2011, but she refused to accept that pronouncement. Already a member of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, she helped form the Re-Open Hynes Committee. Reopening on the original Harrison Avenue site in Lakeview wasn’t an option at the time, so she helped get the school a charter to open temporarily at the St. James Major School, formerly a parochial school in Gentilly. Construction on a new school on the Lakeview campus is underway now.
The effort led to forming Save Our Schools, and about a year later she became a full-time parent advocate operating on grant money allocated by the 21st Century School Fund and the Ford Foundation. Pre-Katrina, she spent her working days as an investment advisor, but now she spends her time informing parents about school options, updating individual school information on a website and blogging about education issues.
She recently took the school system to task in her blog when it was reported that a 6-year-old had been handcuffed to his desk by a security guard at Sarah T. Reed Elementary, a Recovery District school. The child’s parents learned of the incident when he complained about sore wrists.
“Where is the accountability by the school, teacher, security guard to the community and parents?” Daliet asked. “You don’t find that type of accountability in standardized test scores, for sure.”
She thinks the state is too focused on test scores. Because it judges schools, principals and teachers according to student scores, the climate of many schools is too rigid. The state needs to “take a step back from test scores,” she says. “Happiness is a requirement for quality.”
But parental concerns aren’t taken into consideration, Daliet says. “The bottom line is parents are shut out of the process,” she says. “It’s worse in charter schools.”
In another blog, she takes the Council for a Better Louisiana to task for releasing a poll last year that showed strong public support for the charter schools that sprung up in the aftermath of the storm. CABL said the poll showed that New Orleans residents want to continue the education changes that came after Katrina, but Daliet says the poll doesn’t reflect the views of the “active participants” of the system.
Only a quarter of adults in New Orleans have a college degree, she writes, but 50 percent of the people polled were college graduates. Moreover, according to her research, many of the poll responders had a higher income than the parents of the average public school student who qualifies for federally sponsored free lunches.
In reality, she says, the city’s current split system of traditional schools and charter schools often creates hardships for parents and students. There aren’t enough “good” schools in her view, and if parents are lucky enough to gain access to one, the children often ride a bus two hours daily to get to school and back because the school is located so far away.
She also says that the conventional wisdom that parents now have a choice about what school to enroll their children in is false. Because charter schools find ways to select students even if they don’t have obvious selective admissions policies, a system of “have and have nots” has developed. She says students who can’t get in “good” schools are relegated to Recovery District schools, the ones deemed “academically unacceptable” by the state pre-Katrina.
Test scores show steady improvements in these schools, especially in RSD charters, but the majority of students attending traditional RSD schools still fail the state’s LEAP test, the annual standardized test that measures student performance at grade level.
Daliet’s ideal system is one of traditional neighborhood schools without the corruption and ineptitude that marked the former Orleans Parish School Board. “I’m not against charter schools,” she says. “I’m pro good schools in every neighborhood that are accessible to every kid in the city.”
Fighting for schools is her daily bread, and it has become a family project. Her partner of two years, Damon Williams, a measurement technician for Shell Oil, provides for their joint brood of seven children. All of them pitch in to help her work education events.
“My kids are so wonderful,” Daliet says. “They will be at home alone doing their homework while I’m at Hollygrove organizing the community to get a new school. That’s just the sacrifice.”