Headlines about education in Baltimore City often cast a shadow over the city school system and the future prospects of its students.
While Baltimore City Public Schools continue to grapple with challenges such as gun violence near campuses and low standardized test scores, some parents and community members are stepping up to build a brighter future for young Baltimoreans.
From working directly with their child’s school to collaborating with the school system, concerned parents have several opportunities to get involved. But for parents, choosing where to start—between groups such as parent-teacher associations, school-specific organizations, and community advisory boards—can be overwhelming.
To help parents get plugged in, we spoke to two leaders in these spaces about their roles, impact, and tips for how parents can get involved.
Deborah Demery, PTA Council of Baltimore
“Parents should be involved in everything. Teachers can’t do it alone,” said Deborah Demery, president of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) Council of Baltimore. “There are so many things that have been going on in schools, and parents need to take an active role.”
Demery started working with the Parent Teacher Association 12 years ago when she volunteered to start a chapter at her son’s elementary school. Now she heads Baltimore City’s arm of the national organization dedicated to providing advocacy and support for the needs of parents, teachers, school administrators, and other stakeholders.
Though the PTA is well-connected with city leadership, Demery said it’s still a relatively untapped resource for many schools and parents in the Baltimore area. Of the 159 schools in Baltimore, only nine of them have active chapters.
“It’s not that [parents] don’t want to, it’s that they feel like it’s a lot of work,” Demery said.
Each PTA chapter hosts meetings where parents and teachers can discuss issues within their schools and introduce ideas to school administrators. The citywide council previously hosted regular recurring meetings, but with pandemic-fueled uncertainty about public gatherings, the council currently only meets twice a year.
Each local PTA has their own budget, which varies from chapter to chapter, to plan events on their own or coordinate with the schools’ existing initiatives. They raise my money through fundraisers and membership dues, with each chapter determining the amount that makes the most sense for their goals.
“In a perfect world, the PTA and the principal work together. That’s their goal, even though everything that the PTA does is separate from the school,” Demery said. She added that though it depends on the school, ideally, the PTA and the principal meet before the start of each school year to align their calendars and agendas. “They sit down. They look at the school budget, and they say, ‘What do you want for this school year, and then vice versa. They all come together.”
As the president of the council—Demery, along with her leadership team—meets quarterly with both the Office of Family and Community Engagement and Board of School Commissioners to discuss ideas from PTA members. “We have a really good relationship with them,” Demery said. “We have the opportunity to meet with them and make a change and make a difference.”
And starting a local PTA does take some effort. PTAs are considered non-profit organizations, which means organizers are required to file incorporation documents with the state of Maryland, pay an incorporation fee, and maintain compliance with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Members of these groups also pay $25 to join the local council and other dues to fund activities and receive services through the national organization. For each member of a local PTA, the chapter must pay $4.25 to the Free State PTA, Maryland’s state-chartered association, which then passes on $2.25 per member to the National PTA.
Parents who don’t want to sign up for the additional workload may opt to form separate parent teacher organizations at their childrens’ schools. These informal groups allow parents to maintain some autonomy and flexibility in working with their childrens’ school and can cut down on the red tape associated with joining a national organization.
While those organizations function similarly to legalized PTAs, they don’t coordinate with schools across the district and they lack access to the national association’s grant opportunities for arts programming, healthy food options, and social media and technology resources.
“I wish that more schools would see the value in PTA,” Demery said, touting the group’s collaboration with organizations across the city. “It’s not one group out here. We all have to join together to make a difference.”
Demry also pointed to Facebook and neighborhood parent groups, often called “Friends of” the nearest school in the neighborhood,” which can provide helpful tips for particularly new or younger parents who are just starting to look at schools for their kids.
Larry Simmons, Parent and Community Advisory Board
Established by state law in 1997, the Baltimore City Parent and Community Advisory Board unites 14 different parent and community organizations—including the PTA, charter school boards, and even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—across the city under one council to review school policy decisions.
PCAB’s goal is to “[support] parents in the advocacy space and [make] sure that parents have a true voice,” said the board’s chair, Larry Simmons. “Through us, parents are able to have a dialogue with district leadership.”
The board hosts monthly public meetings—typically on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month at 5 p.m.—where parents and other community members can weigh in on decisions about school policies presented by city school officials. Issues discussed at these meetings run the gamut. At one town hall in February, participants brainstormed strategies to address school violence, as well as the city schools’ policy for metal detectors in schools.
And these conversations aren’t just surface-level updates. After last month’s meeting about sexual harassment policies, the school system’s general counsel walked away with the names and numbers of parents whose children were recently impacted by sexual harrasment and bullying at their school.
“We had folks chiming in through Facebook Messenger who had real issues with sexual harassment and bullying at their kid’s school, and they didn’t know about any of the stuff that was included in the presentation or that was supposed to happen in that scenario,” Simmons said. “[The meetings] are just a much more intimate way of connecting parents to school leadership.”
Parents can get involved with PCAB by joining one of its committees such as the budget committee or the teaching and learning committee focused on school curriculum. The board also has liaisons that work directly with the Board of School Commissioners and the Office of Family and Community Engagement.
Simmons said he believes the district has been successful in bridging the gap between communities and the school system. “Anytime that there is an opportunity for parents to be educated, to be informed, to be heard, and to be able to advocate for their children and themselves is a win,” Simmons said. “So PCAB, PTA, school-family councils, organized parent groups—it can be through whoever as long as there is an opportunity for partnership.”
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