A strong education system requires everyone. And Alachua County Public School parents made that known Tuesday afternoon.
A recently founded education advocacy group Education Activists of Alachua County, which formed in September, had its kick-off event before the School Board meeting. The group’s mission is to make a more equitable school system and improve engagement within ACPS.
When COVID-19 struck, parents came together in Facebook groups, such as the Alachua County District Learning Workgroup, which has more than 1,800 members. Parents and teachers planned and talked about challenges and ideas to bring to the school board. Then it became more.
Though the activists group, which has 84 members on the Facebook group for the organization, doesn’t have the power to make decisions in the school district, they hope their advocacy leads to change.
At the event, parents, teachers and education advocates and groups spoke out about becoming involved and inequities in the school district with about 30 people participating in-person and about 50 watching online.
Cassandra Tucci, 42, of Southeast Gainesville, is one of the organizers and was a speaker at the event held outside of the school District Office. Her two children attend public charter schools in the district, but she is currently home with her kids who are doing school through Digital Academy, the online, synchronous learning option.
“A lot of people who never felt those inequalities in the past are feeling them, and they’re paying attention and they’re wanting things to be better and be improved,” she said. “Their eyes have been opened to some of the not so great things that have been happening.”
Tucci said the group is hoping to get people involved and connected to the organizations that speak to them, whether it’s the District Advisory Council, PTAs, becoming a School Board member or voting.
“Right now, the house is on fire in our Black and brown communities and schools,” she said. “And things are in really dire condition.”
The first “house on fire” members want to address is making sure funds are being allocated equitably and that teachers and staff are being paid, retained and recruited fairly.
Seven speakers in addition to Tucci spoke at the meeting.
“We are here to stay until the work is done,” Tucci said, opening the event.
Julie Crosby, who has worked in education for over 25 years, spoke about the District Advisory Council, of which she is a member, and of experiences watching School Board meetings.
“The voice of the community was routinely silenced,” Crosby said.
She noted a lack of strategic collaboration and said the DAC rarely has the opportunity to vote on issues.
“Community advisory boards are vital to municipalities,” she said. “It's crucial for everyone to know these boards exist, and they need to be governed transparently and effectively.”
Speakers Chelsea Bowlin and Kelly Cacciabeve of Teachers for Change, a group that seeks to combat through teacher advocacy systemic inequities in order for all students to be successful.
“Smaller class sizes, to start, would help us to reach each individual student on a more one-to-one basis,” Cacciabeve continued.
Bowlin added that other ways to improve education in the district would be focused on student success and closing the opportunity and achievement gaps between students.
“We would like to see a more diverse teaching staff and more diverse student populations at each school,” Bowlin said.
David Kaplan, an ACPS parent and associate UF professor, spoke on behalf of Prescott Cowles, an ACPS science teacher who is currently quarantined because of exposure to COVID-19. Cowles addressed improvements for dealing with the virus.
“We can have high expectations without being naive,” Cowles said through Kaplan.
Cowles wrote that COVID-19 cases don’t have equal impact.
“We know that some families see this burden worse than others,” Kaplan read.
Cowles urged for a review of the school reopening plan, the inclusion of more medical experts, a coherent COVID-19 reporting and tracing plan and increased testing in schools.
Several speakers discussed racial and economic disparities in the school district and the need for parents to have their voices heard in creating equitable change.
Speaker Traci Amberbride, an ACPS parent and teacher at Pace Center for Girls, a specialized learning center that provides academic and counseling services for middle and high school girls in need, talked about disparity in the school district.
She spoke of the East-West divide and the difference in resources allotted she saw through her experiences as a former Meadowbrook Elementary School teacher and at Pace.
Amberbride noted the significant achievement gaps between Black and white students concerning Black students being disciplined at higher levels and having lower performance scores on reading.
“Now we segregate students in schools with magnets and gifted programs,” she said. “I know that my students are as smart as any others. They just don’t have the same running start as kids across town."
Twenty-eight guests attend a speaking event held by the Education Activists of Alachua County outside the Alachua County Public Schools Office on October 20, 2020. The guests include parents, children and teachers from Alachua County Public Schools. (Samantha Harrison/Alligator Staff)