Keith Ivory has some advice for Roger Cuevas, superintendent of Miami-Dade County public schools: "You know when you see a black and a Latin together, you'd better run." Ivory is one of a hundred or so black and Hispanic parents from Overtown and East Little Havana who are organizing to clean up four neighborhood elementary schools. And they're doing it together, bucking the grand tradition of racial and cultural polarization some Miami politicians have used to keep residents busy fighting among themselves. The parents want police protection for children walking to school through streets plagued by drug dealers and prostitutes. They want flashing lights and speed bumps in front of their schools. They want fire-safety problems fixed. They want toilet paper and soap in the bathrooms.
These are all problems parents like Ivory understand will take time, effort, and money to solve, but he and his cohorts are willing to put in the hours, write the letters, hound the politicians. Sounds like a dream come true for the school district, whose leaders often cite the lack of parents' participation in their children's education as one reason why Miami's inner-city schools often fall behind those in tonier neighborhoods. But so far Cuevas and his subordinates have only managed to annoy Ivory and other parents, who in December banded together as a group called Parents in Action.
Repeatedly they have requested that Cuevas meet with them in their neighborhoods. In January, frustrated by a lack of response to their calls and letters, a dozen of them stormed the superintendent's office to demand a meeting. They were turned away by a battalion of secretaries. "Roger's busy. Try your region superintendent," Ivory recalls one secretary advising the group.
Then they got a letter from deputy superintendent Eddie Pearson telling them a meeting with a region superintendent and a school principal at last had been scheduled -- for 3:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, a time when most working parents could not attend. In addition the meeting had been scheduled at the Region 4 offices of James Moye in western Little Havana, not at a local community center or school where the parents would feel more comfortable speaking their minds. They saw the office meeting as a sign that school officials weren't taking their concerns seriously, so the parents canceled it.
They weren't interested in receiving a letter that amounted to a patronizing pat on the hand. They wanted to use the meeting to galvanize real, community-supported action to improve conditions at Phillis Wheatley Elementary, Paul L. Dunbar Elementary, Frederick Douglass Elementary, and Riverside Elementary. "I don't understand," says Mary Madry, whose granddaughter attends Frederick Douglass in Overtown. "They ought to be glad the parents are involved. They say that's what they want, but when you get involved they push you to the side."
That irony was not lost on parents at the Valentine's Day school board meeting, when a veritable who's who of Miami-area politicians, business leaders, and organizations with programs funded by the school district turned out for a three-hour love fest celebrating Cuevas. More than three dozen notables were teased out of the woodwork by a blast of faxes from Cuevas supporters to rally the troops. The school board was deciding whether to extend the superintendent's $251,690 annual contract by two years, which they did. At that same meeting the board also voted down board member Marta Perez's motion to conduct a formal, public evaluation of Cuevas and the school district attorney in June.
The nearly three televised hours of the Cuevas praise choir did not come without a few peculiar moments. Dashiki-clad Barbara Carey-Schuler, whose county commission district includes Overtown, lauded Cuevas's responsiveness to the community and said she hasn't heard any complaints about the school district in a year. "I have not gotten any complaints about what has happened in the school district because you all are doing a great job," she cooed.
Apparently she hadn't been watching a few moments earlier when some members of Parents in Action, sporting makeshift black armbands, were kicked out of the meeting by school security for passing out flyers that complained about conditions at their schools. "We were hustled out of there," recalls Denise Perry, executive director of the Family Advocacy Center, which is coordinating the parents' efforts.
(The Family Advocacy Center is a community-organizing nonprofit group supported by Miami-Dade Children's Services Council, Children First, and Barry University. During the past two years, the Miami Shores-based center has organized residents living along I-95 into Neighborhoods in Action, a group that successfully pushed the state Department of Transportation to make good on promises to build a noise-reduction wall along the expressway from State Road 112 to the Golden Glades Interchange. Perry believes the organizing formula that worked for the seemingly disparate communities of Haitian, African-American, white, and Hispanic families living along I-95 also will work for Parents in Action.)
The idea for Parents in Action came after Perry had heard too many parents in East Little Havana and Overtown make the same complaints about the schools their children attend. While the two communities are separated geographically, a fair number of East Little Havana's children are bused to Overtown schools and vice-versa. Wheatley, Douglass, and Dunbar are in Overtown, while Riverside is in East Little Havana. The parents have taken the first steps by overcoming their differences to join together on issues that affect all their children. A committee of ten meets every couple of weeks at community centers in Overtown and Little Havana. Larger meetings are held less frequently. Each meeting includes a prayer circle, conducted in English and Spanish. Madry, a grandmother who volunteers at Douglass Elementary, admits that too often black and Hispanic parents have chosen to act on their differences. They realize that has gotten them exactly nowhere in helping their children. "They are all our children no matter what nationality they are," she says. Loretta Moore, who has two daughters at Douglass, agrees: "We all got to get together as one."
"That's right," nods Madry. "I feel like if I help other people's children, maybe it'll help my grandchild."
Ivory is the kind of single father teachers drool over. He works nights as a security guard so he can spend daylight hours with his son, a first grader at Wheatley. He attends PTSA meetings, leads a Boy Scout troop, and twice was named parent of the month at the school. Standing outside Wheatley on a recent weeknight, Ivory surveys a dismal landscape sparsely peopled by drug dealers, prostitutes, and those he considers just plain shady characters. "There are drug dealers all around here," he observes, gazing at the barren strip of grass across the street from the school's front entrance. "The law says there isn't supposed to be drugs within 1000 feet of a school. Well, don't turn around, but it's going on not 50 yards away."
Ivory knows the school, located at 1801 NW First Pl., is in a rough part of town. "The kids have a drill here that they definitely know when to drop to the floor," he remarks wryly, in reference to the children's response when they hear gunfire. But a school police officer, preferably one on horseback, would go a long way toward creating a protective bubble for students walking to school. "We'd love to see that," he says. "It would be safer, and the kids would get a big kick out of it."
Ivan Canales, a soft-spoken Honduran parent, agrees. "We have the same issues at Douglass and Riverside," he offers while standing with Ivory outside Wheatley. "I think we can do a better thing for the children." Canales says he walks his son to school, and every day dealers approach and try to sell him something. He looks at his son. "Fortunately, he don't understand English yet, so he doesn't understand," he sighs.
The parents emphasize they aren't blaming the principals of the schools. Ivory says the principal of his son's school, Cora Portee, is doing everything she can, but neither she nor the PTSA can get a flashing yellow safety light put in front of the school, change the school-zone speed signs to reflect the time when children are actually walking across the street, or bring the auditorium up to fire code so children can stop performing plays in the cafeteria.
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That's why the parents are going to the top. "We want them to be actively pursuing solutions," says Perry of the Family Advocacy Center. "If the funds for the flashing light need to come from the Metropolitan Planning Organization, then we want them to be actively involved with the MPO. If the police need to put officers here, then they should be talking to them. These parents would be more than happy to go to those meetings. We would like the opportunity to show we are interested."
Back at the February 14 school board meeting, Miami-Dade County Council PTA/PTSA member Ethel Pruitt gave Cuevas much credit for his inclusiveness, "not only with the elite but with the everyday person who walks the street.... He is available if you come to him with something that is very important concerning the children. He has time. He finds time. He makes time." Parents in Action would like to believe that, but they haven't seen the evidence. And they're not planning on a long wait, either.
A week after the school board meeting, the group's steering committee gathered to discuss the next step. "We've got to find out who our friends are," said Perry, suggesting the group begin contacting local politicians, social groups, churches, and principals. Another idea: an evaluation of Roger Cuevas offered by the parents, perhaps outside the school board headquarters during the next public meeting. The evaluation could be accompanied by larger-than-life props such as a giant scoreboard, a dirty toilet, and, scattered on the ground, pictures of children. They haven't worked out the details yet. "We got to do something big," reasoned Riverside parent Carlita Martinez, before interpreting the ideas for parents who spoke only Spanish. "We're getting the runaround."
Ultimately the group would like to hold an accountability meeting, in their neighborhoods, where top school officials would explain why problems at the schools haven't been solved. Then they want to help. "It's the children we're concerned about," Madry says. "If you can't voice your opinion to the school board about the children, who can you voice it to?"