How parent advocacy groups can make a difference: An interview with Christine Smith
Davidson Institute for Talent Development
2005

In our advocacy work at the Davidson Institute, we have found that a group of parents working together to advocate for an appropriate education for their gifted children generally gets better results than one parent advocating alone. In an effort to help facilitate the building of more effective parent advocacy groups for gifted students throughout the country, this is the first of a series of interviews with persons who have helped form or have led advocacy groups.

The following conversation between Jan Davidson, co-founder and president of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, and Christine Smith, founder and current president of Southlake Parents for Academic Excellence (SPACE) in Southlake, Texas was done by email during March of 2005.

JAN: How did your advocacy group begin?

CHRISTINE: I began SPACE in September of 2001 when my third grade daughter began not wanting to go to school.

First, I tried to address the problem alone. I followed the school hierarchy and spoke with my daughter's teacher, who assured me everything was fine. I spoke with the Principal who threw terms across the desk that I did not understand: "breadth and depth;" "scope and sequence;" something about complexity. I realized I would have to educate myself about what gifted children need in order to know what to ask for. I was fortunate to be able to attend the Texas Association for Gifted and Talented conference in San Antonio in November of 2001. There I learned that advocating wasn't easy and that is was important to remain positive yet persistent and that I would have more chance of success if I could gather more people who were interested in improving the current system.

I bought and read several books at the conference and attended many sessions and came away with a much better understanding of what my daughter needed, how she could get it, and what the schools could and could not provide. I returned and had a meeting with my daughter's teacher who told me that the reason she had to do the whole six-week session on measurement was because she had missed 10% (1 question) on the pre-test. My daughter hadn't known that it took two 1/4 cups to make a 1/2 cup. I said, "But you know that as soon as you tell her that, she'll know it forever. Why does that mean she has to sit through six weeks of remedial work?" She had no answer for me. That's just the way things were.

I investigated more and typed up a one-page letter with some suggestions of things that could be done in the classroom that might be helpful. When I arrived for our meeting, there were four chairs lined up on one side of a table and one chair on the other. The teacher, principal, counselor and gifted teacher were all supposed to sit on one side and me on the other. (I had not been told anyone else would be there.) The gifted teacher, bless her heart, moved her chair a little bit closer to mine, but it was clear the deck was stacked against us.

The counselor proceeded to tell me that there was no such thing as an IEP for a gifted child...that was for special education. I had the document with me that showed schools who used IEP's, but didn't even bother to pull it out, seeing that it would have no impact. The teacher proceeded to tell me something must be wrong with my daughter because during recess she just wanted to be by herself. She then questioned my parenting. When the gifted teacher suggested that a few of the children who were ahead in reading might be allowed to read something a little advanced together, the teacher replied that she wouldn't have it. We were doomed.

Right then I committed myself to trying to make sure no other parent would be made to feel like a criminal because his or her child was smart. Since then, I always advise parents to go into any school meeting with someone else; never alone.

I proceeded to schedule countless meetings with parents I knew who had gifted children (my husband began to refer to the local Starbuck's as my office.) I had educated myself about what the state required for gifted children and how our district stacked up and I tried to get the parents to understand that together we might be able to get the district to make some changes. Most of the parents I spoke with didn't want to ruffle any feathers. They were afraid of repercussions for their children if they got branded as troublemakers. Having witnessed what I had, I couldn't exactly advise them that wasn't going to happen.

Out of all of these meetings, I found 3 kindred spirits who were willing to go out there full force and a few others who were willing to work behind the scenes.

JAN: So how many were in your initial core group altogether?

CHRISTINE: Ten altogether; four of us willing to be "out in front advocates" and 6 behind the scenes advocates.

JAN: What were your next steps?

CHRISTINE: We decided the first thing we needed to do was to organize so we established ourselves as the President with three Vice-Presidents of different grade levels. Prior to this recent endeavor, I'd had no idea what the hierarchy within a school district was or how it worked. We quickly learned. A visit with the superintendent, who is responsible for implementing Board Policy, made us aware that he was not the least bit interested in gifted education and we knew immediately that we would need to move to the School Board, which is responsible for setting district policy.

We decided we had to be able to show the Board that our Exemplary-rated district was not meeting the needs of its most talented students. The only apples to apples comparison we could come up with to compare districts across the country was SAT scores and National Merit Finalists (NMF.) Our district was proud of always comparing itself to its neighbors, even though they did not share our demographics. So we found districts within our local area, within our state, and in other parts of the country that shared similar demographics. We compiled a report that showed that while we did score above our neighboring districts, we were the only district of similar demographics that was below the average line. This report was researched and presented very professionally and it gained us credibility with the School Board.

We also learned a lesson: We were reporting on the 9-12 grade campuses without ever having contacted those campus administrators. Most of the children of those of us involved in compiling the report were in the lower grades and that was where our greatest concern lay, but we couldn't find a comparison to use with the lower grades. We realized how important it is to follow district-established protocol and that in the future we would always speak with those closest to an issue before moving on to others.

JAN: What happened next?

CHRISTINE: In the next School Board elections in 2002, it ended up that 5 of our 7 members had gifted children. This new School Board encouraged our current superintendent to resign and we immediately requested an audience with the interim superintendent who said he "heard the passion in our voices." He allowed us to address a meeting of all of the district and campus administration where we told them that we did not think they were addressing the needs of our gifted children and that we were there to help in any way we could. The interim superintendent gave us permission to schedule interviews with each campus administrator to discuss their current program of identifying and serving their gifted children. While this provided incredible insight into how each of the Principals felt toward and their knowledge of gifted ed, again, it did not earn us any Brownie points. They resented having to meet with us.

JAN: So given what you know now, would you not have met with each campus administrator or would you have handled the meetings differently?

CHRISTINE: I definitely would have met with each administrator because the information gained was and still is invaluable. But in hindsight, I probably should have started off each meeting lightheartedly by making sure they knew we were there to determine the best ways that we could help; not to try to control their processes.

JAN: What kinds of successes has your group achieved?

CHRISTINE: This School Board then hired an incredible superintendent, Dr. Gary Mathews, who started in October of 2002. He let us know immediately that he understood, supported and was committed to gifted ed. He implemented a district-wide vision and mission committed to providing appropriate services for all and has continued to support the improvement of advanced academics. So far, through our constant commitment to attending and speaking at school board meetings; being active participants on community committees; scheduling regular meetings with district and campus administrators...we have gotten the district to implement advanced math in 5th/6th grades; advanced humanities in 7th/8th; and they will be implementing advanced science for 7th/8th in fall of 2005. We have also encouraged the district to save the few gifted teaching positions we have in the midst of deep budget cuts. When the school board members were hearing from the majority of the community that gifted ed served so few, they felt it should be cut first. Next week, the Board will discuss passing a policy that will not discourage 7th/8th graders from taking advanced courses by including their grades in their GPA...this has been a two-year long conversation.

JAN: These are significant accomplishments! In less than 4 years you've worked to affect a change in leadership to one committed to providing appropriate educational services for all students and implemented advanced courses in three core curriculum subjects. It sounds like your group is in a good position to achieve even more services for gifted learners in the future. What are your plans?

CHRISTINE: We think we are in a good position to continue to affect services for gifted children, but it is a constant, never-ending job. We've learned from other parent groups that have done this longer than we have that as soon as the advocating stops, the services begin to go away. We still have a long way to go. Services at the K-4 level still consist of a pull-out program almost exclusively and the gifted children are still not allowed to spend a majority of their instructional time together with a teacher with advanced training in teaching the gifted. Our 5th and 6th graders still only have advanced math, even though the state mandates appropriate instruction in all four core subjects. We're making strong advances in 7th and 8th grades, but our high school still uses many AP courses as their advanced courses with no accommodation for a student's giftedness.

JAN: What does SPACE look like today?

CHRISTINE: Our group currently has about 75 members who pay the annual $15 membership fee, and there are about 6 of us doing most of the work. The members receive a newsletter three times a year. We have just started a Monday morning Spread the Word that we send to any interested parties to try to get the word out about all of the positive things occurring in our district to try to combat the tendency of the media to focus on what is not going well.

Our Mission is to assist the district in implementing appropriate programs for gifted children. Last fall we finally received our non-profit status that will hopefully allow us to do more substantial fundraising in the coming school year. We meet once-a-month to plan speaker events and membership drives and advocacy priorities and strategies.

JAN: I notice that throughout the SPACE website, www.southlakespace.com, you indicate that you advocate for both academically advanced students as well as gifted and talented students. Can you talk about why your group chose this approach?

CHRISTINE: When we first started our group, there were some grades in some schools that had over 40% of their students identified as gifted! We realized that there are many students who would benefit from advanced academics who are not identified as gifted. When those students' needs are not met, their parents believe that if they could just get them into the gifted program, their problems would be solved. Since campus administrators didn't have programs in place to meet those student's needs, it was many times easier to just identify those children as gifted to placate the parents. We believe that in order for a system to be able to meet the needs of its gifted students, it must also have programs in place to meet the needs of its high-ability and high-achieving students who are not gifted.

JAN: At the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned how you had to educate yourself about gifted education before you could advocate for your gifted daughter. Is parent education a key activity of your advocacy group?

CHRISTINE: Yes, we have a library of books about gifted education that we loan out on request. We bring in speakers and share information about other programs that are going on around our area. We work one-on-one with any parent who requests our assistance with their child within our district and have even helped parents from other districts who request help with their own children or with starting a parent group of their own. We encourage parents to attend our state gifted conference to learn more of the basics about gifted education in general and their child's needs specifically.

JAN: What is your advice to others wanting to start a gifted parent advocacy group?

CHRISTINE: To anyone wanting to start a Parent Advocacy Group, one of the most important things is to remain positive, yet persistent. So many parents are worn down by the process by the time they seek us out for help, they are very angry. Since we have remained positive, no one can claim that we are confrontational.

JAN: "Positive, yet persistent" is excellent advice. I completely understand how frustrating advocating can be for gifted parents, but if they can avoid the negative words, attitudes, body language, they will be a much more effective advocate for their child. What kind of person(s) should take on the task of starting an advocacy group?

CHRISTINE: It takes one strong, committed person to educate him/herself about the state and federal laws and to read as much as possible about the ways to meet the needs of these children. Gathering information that can be shared with others who are considering getting on board is a good thing, too. That one strong person must be willing to say what needs to be said without fear of retribution. For the most part, district officials don't like meddling parents. You have to establish that you are knowledgeable, intend to be helpful and that you are not going away and then they may consider dealing with you. Building positive relationships with those in charge is vital, starting with the superintendent and all of his support staff and going on to each campus principal and vice principal and any gifted teachers or teachers of advanced courses.

You have to have a spine of steel. It has been 41 months since I started this journey and we are just now in a place where there is a line of succession that will allow me to end my tenure at the end of this school year. My Vice-President has shadowed me as our President-Elect this year to see how things are done and to build the necessary relationships.

JAN: Does SPACE collaborate with any of the other parent advocacy groups?

CHRISTINE: At our state conference this past year, the executive director had a meeting of all Texas Presidents of Parent groups where we exchanged ideas and e-mail addresses. Having a support group is essential, whether it be local or not. Knowing you're not the only one out there and that your expectations are reasonable is helpful. The Hurst-Euless-Bedford website has many links to bylaws and non-profit paperwork, etc. I am also in touch with several other parent groups in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. We are considering trying to form a co-op whereby we would share the cost of bringing in speakers, etc... The Carrollton/Farmers Branch district President is also 'retiring' this year and we will try to get the larger group up and running. It is imperative to constantly try to bring in new people and get them excited because as people's children age out of the system, their priorities change and if no one is advocating, the programs will be cut.

JAN: I noticed that SPACE is affiliated with the Texas Gifted Association, which is affiliated with the National Associations of Gifted Children. What kind of support do you get from these organizations?

CHRISTINE: The most helpful thing that our state organization offers is its annual conference where there are literally hundreds of choices of sessions to attend and a very large area where resources are sold. The Texas conference is the largest in the country and I would suggest that any parent group trying to get started should try to send a representative. Also, the state organization keeps us posted about bills that are being considered in the legislature that may affect gifted ed. This allows us to rally our troops to contact our representatives in a timely matter. The organization will also provide an occasional speaker.

JAN: In view of your experience in founding and building this advocacy group, could you provide a list of do's and don'ts for other advocacy groups?

CHRISTINE: Do's: Educate yourself and any others who show interest; Stay positive, not confrontational, even when faced with adversity; Establish non-profit status and an executive board and a line of succession as soon as possible; If someone shows interest in the organization, find out where they are most interested in serving and get them involved immediately...the only way a group can survive long-term is by having people who are involved at a minimal level get interested in increasing their involvement.

Don'ts: Don't ignore your district's accepted standard operating procedures...follow the hierarchy; Don't underestimate any one individual's ability to impact change...every person involved with your child and the district has the potential to be someone who can make a significant difference; Don't forget the power of the children...involve them in speaking at School Board meetings and doing research and speaking to administrators and teachers about what they would like to see...nothing is more powerful than the voice of a child.

JAN: That is wise advice. Thank you, Christine, for taking the time to share with us what you've learned in founding and leading a successful parent advocacy group. I know your experiences will encourage and help others to organize and actively participate in advocacy groups for gifted students.

For more information about this parent advocacy group, see the Southlake Parents for Academic Excellence (SPACE) website, www.southlakespace.com.

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