Every month, the FACE Office will recognize one group or individual who has shown an exceptional commitment to family and community engagement in their school community. We call them “innovators” because of the hard work, creativity, and fresh ideas they bring to the table. This month, we’re featuring NW PHL Public Schools, a Facebook group which also has a public page that features resources, conversations, and tips from families across the city who work together to promote Philadelphia public schools. We spoke with the group’s founder, Zoe Rooney and two instrumental members, To-Lan Tran, and Sophia Saunders, all of whom send their children to a combination of District public and charter schools. We asked about the NW PHL Public Schools group and their newly created Neighborhood School Builder Parent/Family Reference Guide.
Did you all know each other before the NW PHL Public Schools Facebook Group was created or did you meet each other through the group?
Zoe: We didn’t know each other before. I was involved with C.W. Henry through “Considering Henry,” which is a parent led group for prospective parents. We hold meetings throughout the school year in the homes of current Henry parents, where we would primarily talk to people who had kids in preschool and who were thinking about kindergarten. Through that work, I started to realize there needed to be a place to have larger conversations in general about public schools in Northwest Philly and across the whole city, really. I was finding that parents who were considering Henry were very focused on Henry and not public schools in general. So that’s where the idea came from; I created the group at the end of February 2018 and started connecting with people that I knew through Considering Henry and others I knew through other schools and it kind of exploded from there. Within 6-8 weeks, we had over 400 members.
Sophia: I got involved in the group through my community work. Our neighborhood has a 9th District Community Council which was involved in advocacy work around Ad Prima Charter School. This led me to join the discussion group and that’s how I first met Zoe and I put a couple posts on and people started responding.
To-Lan: I read something that Zoe wrote on another website and I linked up with her Facebook page. I just really enjoy helping other families in various schools. I was a volunteer at Russell Byers [Charter School] for ten years and ran various fundraisers. So I was able to put input from experience running the different programs.
Can you tell us about the Neighborhood School Builder Parent/Family Reference Guide?
Sophia: I look at the Guide like an A to Z kind of thing, where we start off with the different resources that are available and different websites that families can go to and then we dive into topics that may come up. I tried to keep it very chronological so that it goes from Back to School Night to Teacher Appreciation and all in between. I think it’s a great starting point, especially for a parent that is not engaged.
To-Lan: For me, the Reference Guide is a quick start, live document for parent groups that are starting or need to be reengaged. It really guides the parents that don’t have anybody there right now…this is kind of a guide to encourage and give ideas of what has worked and even putting ourselves out there to be available to help.
Can you take us through the process of creating the Reference Guide?
Zoe: We had a meeting at the end of last school year that was at the East Falls Library. We invited people from the group from a variety of schools to do some brainstorming about what we found successful and what some challenges were at different schools.
Sophia: The Reference Guide came out of postings [in the Facebook group]. Initially I had created a post about the in-catchment/out-of-catchment issue; I know I wanted to educate people about why people choose not to go to their neighborhood schools. That led to more people posting and Zoe said that they were interested in putting something together. I was able to pull things together and To-Lan and Zoe were very helpful in reviewing. A lot of it came from different posts and things from that meeting. That took about a month and then we released it around July.
What has the reception of the guide been like on the Facebook group? How are you working to get it out to as many people as possible?
Sophia: Well, initially I had posted onto our discussion page and then I think someone from the group posted it to the Philly School News page, saying a parent in the Northwest created a Reference Guide. Other than that, I think people have shared it.
Zoe: Because the Facebook page is so large at this point and has a pretty good network, we have Philly School News posting and some folks who are involved with The Notebook in the group. So we’ve been really lucky to get some traction in those ways. Every reaction I’ve seen, has really been overwhelmingly positive and people are really excited about it. It’s definitely something we want to share more widely, with other schools, and also think of it as a working document so as more ideas come in, we can make additions.
What is the main thing you want families to take away from this guide?
Sophia: I think the biggest takeaway for me is that if we can do it, you can do it to. A lot of people are afraid of taking on these [family] leadership roles because they don’t think they have the administrative skills and that is very intimidating. But what I was trying to tell them is it’s laid out for you, you have a manual, all you have to do is follow behind.
To-Lan: My hope is the Reference Guide will be helpful and instrumental in getting other parents encouraged, that they have support, even if don’t they have it within their schools, they have us. There are other parents out there that are willing to help out, even if their child is not at that specific school.
Zoe: I would agree with that. That’s a message we’ve been talking about within our group. Sometimes your neighborhood school is not a viable option for your family, for a variety of reasons, but we really want to have this conversation that’s it’s really important to stay engaged with your neighborhood school whether or not you send your kids there because the goal is that every neighborhood school is a viable option for every family, everywhere in the city.
If each of you had to tell a prospective family why they should they send their child to the public school in their area, what would you say?
Zoe: I feel really strongly about public schools for public good. I think for parents, particularly families of color or families who are low-income, who have not benefited from society in the way it’s currently set up, should have all the choices in the world and they should be able to access any part of our school system that is going to work best for their family. I also feel really strongly about parents that do have privilege and options who say they believe in public school and say public education is important. I really push those parents to live in a way that demonstrates those values which means taking part in public education. One of the reasons I started this group is because the way we started talking about Henry was focused on resources and “things,” which are great, but to me, public education itself is what’s more important.
To-Lan: My answer is a bit skewed because my children have gone to both charter schools and magnet public schools. My goal as a parent has always been to have my children in schools that are diverse in race and socio-economic backgrounds. In the local schools, you’re going to see the local people and that, for me, would be a key selling point to go to your local public school.
What does the future hold for your group and the Reference Guide?
Sophia: I am very optimistic about the future because I’m seeing parents become more engaged. We don’t always see the fruits of our labor, but by people linking with us, they’re starting to kind of catch the fever! I just love the discussion group because so much comes up on there and people just chime in, regardless of where they’re from in the Philadelphia area.
To-Lan: It’s like the safety in numbers effect. If somebody needs resources in their school or had the same problem, we’re able to unite.
Zoe: We have a few stated goals for the group and some other projects that we’ll continue to work on. One of the projects we completed was a yard sign and car magnet campaign, We <3 Our Philly Public Schools, so we initiated that in Northwest Philly, but we were able to get some funding through the West Mount Airy Neighborhood Association to do another print run and we’re trying to do that across the city now to raise visibility and support for public schools. We’re also really focused on continuing to build that wider network, continue sharing and discussing because that’s where you get all the good stuff from. And also, continuing to share resources. We really want parents to know about their options and what their resources are.
Visit the NW PHL Public Schools Facebook Group here.
Visit the NW PHL Public Schools Facebook Page here.