Parent involvement

Chelsea parent is an unlikely ally in the school closure fights

Mary Conway-Spiegel (right) talks with Zenobia White, principal of the Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship in the Bronx, while observing a middle school class.

After dropping her two sons at their Chelsea elementary school one morning this fall, Mary Conway-Spiegel spent several minutes fiddling with the GPS in her black SUV before it spat out directions to her next stop: a high school 15 miles north, in the Wakefield section of the Bronx.

Conway-Spiegel had an appointment with Zenobia White, the principal of a secondary school whose middle grades faced closure by the Department of Education.

Conway-Spiegel had no connection to the school, the Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship, before last October, when White responded to a surprise offer from Conway-Spiegel to help ASE combat the stigma of being on the city’s shortlist for school closures.

The offer came during a round of cold calls that has become an annual ritual for Conway-Spiegel, who has appointed herself surrogate class parent at some of the city’s most struggling schools. She defends them under the banner of a one-woman advocacy outfit, called the Partnership for Student Advocacy, and the mantra — repeated almost daily via Twitter — “There are no failing schools.”

Conway-Spiegel’s exact motivation — to trek miles north and southeast from her Manhattan home and spend thankless hours sitting through public hearings — is hard to pin down, even for her. But she said a combination of experience as a graduate of the city public schools system and the adoptive parent of an African-American teenager inspired her to “see for myself” what the fuss is about at the city’s lowest-performing public schools.

“I just couldn’t stand it any longer, the discomfort I felt with what a bad job is being done in these communities,” she said. “It just seemed to me that nobody had ever been to these schools. I wanted to see just how awful it was, and when I went to see, none of it was that awful.”

Conway-Spiegel said she also takes inspiration from other parent activists, such as Leonie Haimson and Zakiyah Ansari, who head up organizing efforts around education policy issues, and from the Coalition for Educational Justice, the force behind many school closure protests. But rather than rally at the Department of Education’s headquarters, Conway-Spiegel prefers to log hours inside schools before advocating for them to stay open. She only works with schools where she can establish an on-the-ground presence and a relationship with the principal.

Most principals Conway-Spiegel reaches out to don’t respond — she said she understands that it is difficult for them to invite an outsider in at a moment of turmoil. But the ones who do — at Christopher Columbus High School, ASE, Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School, and the High School of Graphic Communication Arts — receive crucial assistance with public relationship, help with what Conway-Spiegel calls “grunt work,” and, perhaps most crucially, hand-holding when it is most needed.

In 2010 she joined Columbus’s staff in protesting the city’s second, and ultimately successful, bid to close the school. She also helped them put together a proposal to convert Columbus into a charter school and volunteered to present the proposal to city officials, including a team of staffers who worked for Chancellor Dennis Walcott, then a deputy mayor.

At ASE, Conway-Spiegel helped White gather a group of local community leaders to brainstorm how to support the middle school through the closure and improve the high school’s academic and extracurricular offerings.

Last December, Conway-Spiegel arranged and led a meeting for students and staff from the Graphic Communication Arts to show off the fruits of their CTE program to city journalists. (Graphics escaped the city’s regular closure list but now faces being shuttered through turnaround.) Lantigua Sime, a long-time assistant principal at the school, said that meeting provided a rare opportunity to paint his school in a positive light for the public.

“They saw the good things that students do. That’s something that’s never happened before,” he said. “It’s always been a negative thing, that Graphics is a failing school. We’ve always felt like we have quality programs, we’ve just never had the opportunity to reflect that.”

Delving into some of the city’s most troubled schools is an unlikely activity for Conway-Spiegel, who grew near New York University, graduated from the school that is now called Fiorella H. LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and the Performing Arts, and founded her own fitness company. She has no education experience other than as a student and parent.

She got a taste of the challenges that low-income families face when she looked several years ago for a high school for a son she adopted when he was a teenager. (She declined to speak about him in detail but said his story was redolent of “The Blind Side,” a book and film about the efforts of a wealthy, white family to adopt a homeless, black teenager in Tennessee.)

But it wasn’t until she waded into a space-sharing fight at P.S. 11, the diverse elementary school her two younger children attend, that she became an education activist.

After becoming PTA president, Conway-Spiegel led efforts to defend the city’s bid to evict another school from P.S. 11’s building to relieve overcrowding.

One comment stuck with Conway-Spiegel long after the conflict was resolved.

“I’m so embarrassed,” she recalled another P.S. 11 mother telling her after a meeting. “You’re doing all this work and I’m not helping.”

If parents at P.S. 11 couldn’t find time to advocate for their school while juggling the demands of work and family, Conway-Spiegel thought, then what challenges must be facing poorer communities, where parents work multiple jobs, don’t speak English as their first language, or are afraid to participate in public education hearings because they are undocumented?

She decided to find out for herself, by attending public hearings that the city must hold when it proposes to close a school.

A prevailing narrative around low-performing schools is that they harbor apathetic educators and serve families who don’t value education. But Conway-Spiegel saw families who cared deeply, yet couldn’t make it to public meetings about their schools scheduled for the early evening or were too timid to speak out.

“There were many, many, many parents afraid to come forward, afraid to show up to hearings, afraid to take the mike,” she said. “I knew that, because of where we were in Manhattan, geographically, politically, we were in an advantageous position. Go to the Bronx, go to Hunts Point, the flatlands of Brooklyn, it’s a different story.”

Talk with Conway-Spiegel about DOE policies aimed at struggling schools, and she will inevitably turn to critiquing the practice of blaming parents, teachers, administrators for their students’ poor performances.

“I’m tired of it, I object to it: parents are not to blame,” she said. “Parents are doing the best they can and especially in these disenfranchised communities, shame on you for blaming them.”

On her way home from ASE, Conway-Spiegel reiterated the thesis that has become her raison d’etre: Labeling a school as failing hurts students and staff and doesn’t begin to solve the deep-seated problems that caused poor performance in the first place

“I just can’t imagine that feeling, hearing three months into your work year, that you suck. That’s just rough,” she said about the schools’ teachers and students. “That’s just rough. My heart goes out to them.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”