Power to the Parents

Tired of being shut out of school decision-making, New Jersey nonprofit Parents Engaging Parents draws power from community

In 2017, a group of 30 KIPP NJ and North Star Academy charter school parents traveled from Newark to Trenton, New Jersey, to testify before the state school board in favor of a measure to ease teacher certification requirements. The group, led by KIPP NJ board member and parent Altorice Frazier, wanted greater access to talented teaching candidates who might share the race, ethnicity and socioeconomic background of their children.

But Frazier and his cohort were unprepared for the resistance they faced.

The measure’s opponents portrayed the parents as political pawns being used to promote charter expansion in the state. Frazier was stunned by the charge.

“That’s what made me start thinking: If we’re going to come to these events, we have to be much more civically aware,” he says. “We have to move because we want to move. Yes, we can be in step with [charter school leaders], but it cannot be the narrative that Black, Brown and poor parents are just being told what to do. We can do it as partners, but we can no longer do it as customers and clients.”

Frazier, a father of five, was deeply involved with student mentoring and parent engagement through leadership roles at his kids’ schools. He also trained as a community organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation, and—not long after the contentious school board meeting in Trenton—Frazier founded Parents Engaging Parents (PEPNJ). The nonprofit promotes civic awareness and proactive parent advocacy to bring about real, measurable change on issues important to local communities.

Many of the parents Frazier spoke with expressed frustration about the transactional nature of their relationship with schools. Too often parents were mobilized for specific issues and then felt ignored once the campaigns were over. Frazier believed that many institutions took a top-down – and short-sighted – approach with parents. “That’s not the seed of building community,” he says. “We want to avoid check-the-box initiatives. We want to come into things with intention and with a coalition, collaboration and community.”