Public education's Johnny Appleseed plants parents groups encourages them to grow The Internet has allowed the father of four to begin a grass-roots organization that has reached parents across the country.
By Carolyn Bower
Of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
A conversation with Kevin Walker, leader of a national parents group, often boils down to this: The hope for improving public schools rests on parents.
At Walker's dining room table at his home in University City, parents talk with Walker, 39, about how to improve student achievement, keep schools safe and have their concerns heard. The same thing happens with Walker at church, at school and even on the World Wide Web.
For it is cyberspace that has enabled Walker, parent of four children and a former political organizer, to begin a grass-roots organization that has reached parents in schools across the United States. The group is called Project Appleseed. Walker envisions parent groups sprouting from the organization as apple trees sprouted from seeds Johnny Appleseed planted around the nation two centuries ago. The Internet has allowed Walker's group to share equal space with the PTA, the National Education Association and other groups working to improve schools. Project Appleseed's Web site and Walker's efforts have brought him national attention, including mention in the August-September issue of Teacher magazine as one of 10 people who most shaped U.S. education during the past decade.
For more than a decade, school reform has captured the attention of business and government leaders. The '90s became the decade of standards, tests and report cards on schools. School accountability became a staple of speeches.
But the real key to school reform, Walker said, lies with those who have the most at stake. If you want to improve schools, you have to think about the customer. In public education, there is one customer and that is parents, he said.
"Educators may say, 'It's about children.' I disagree. It's about parents," he said.
Some parents don't even help their children with homework, much less volunteer at their school. At the same time, other parents sit on curriculum and school management committees. And some volunteer as reading tutors, playground aides or members of neighborhood safety patrols.
Walker envisions marketing parental involvement to the American people, not just in cyberspace, but on radio and television. Having a parent go to school and volunteer becomes the first step.
Beyond that, parents need to organize in groups to hold schools to higher standards, he said. Walker wants these groups to work on parents' image, starting with what he calls the perception of parents on television as bumpkins.
Parents, Walker said, should be able to choose a public school or publicly financed charter school, although he opposes vouchers, which use government money to pay private school tuition.
Walker's parents attended St. Louis public schools but chose not to send their son there because of concerns about academics and safety. Walker attended St. Engelbert parochial school. But today Walker says his old neighborhood school, Ashland, has improved so much that he would send his own children there if they lived in that part of St. Louis.
When he was in fourth grade, Walker's family moved to the largely white Webster Groves School District in search of better schools. Walker's father, Sterling Walker, had worked his way up from a janitor at the old Down's clothing store to owner of Sterling's Mens Store at Grand Avenue and Olive Boulevard.
Kevin Walker's classmates expected him to seek political office. He served as student body president at Webster Groves High School and studied political science at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. He married Susan Chopin, his high school sweetheart and great-granddaughter of writer Kate Chopin.
Walker dropped out of college in his junior year to work for Walter Mondale's unsuccessful presidential campaign. He organized the marketing in Missouri for the Hands Across America project to call attention to the homeless. He worked for Michael Roberts' St. Louis mayoral campaign and later the movement to draft Mario Cuomo for president in 1992.
But his heart was with his children and the schools they attended. He serves on a management council at his children's elementary school. He visits the school to make sure the bathrooms are clean. He walks the streets near the high school, wearing a badge that identifies him as Kevin Walker, parent.
One recent night, Walker stirred chicken on the stove, signed parental permission slips to play soccer and football, answered several telephone calls, and walked three of his children to a meeting for parents, students and coaches at University City High School.
Project Appleseed is his job. He works from home.
"As a man, I flinch when people call me Mr. Mom," said Walker, who stands well over 6 feet tall and who weighs more than 220 pounds. "I never intended to do the grocery shopping, the cooking or being on the phone with superintendents or CEOs who can hear dishes clattering or children talking in the background."
In 1991, he helped organize a citizens for public education group in University City. A year later, the group became a chapter of Parents for Public Schools, a national group begun in 1989 in Jackson, Miss., as part of an effort to stem flight from the public schools. That group now has more than 50 chapters in 22 states.
In 1993, Walker began Project Appleseed as a pilot program for Parents for Public Schools. Walker broke away from Parents for Public Schools on a friendly basis a few months later. Shortly after that, Walker was invited to discuss education issues with presidential advisers at the White House.
At the time, his group called for parents to volunteer to help at school and with their children at home. The group wanted the publication of school performance information, as well as test scores and budget information, something Missouri education officials have since required.
Through its Web site, Project Appleseed makes available a parent pledge. In the pledge, parents promise to volunteer at least five hours in the schools each semester and to spend at least 15 minutes a night reading with their children or helping them with homework or other activities. Part of the pledge should be returned to school. The other part should be posted on a refrigerator to serve as a reminder to parents.
The pledge asks parents to pick from among dozens of interests, including helping in class, supervising students working on computers, doing clerical work or becoming a neighborhood home if students need a safe place to go.
The Appleseed Web site tells parents they don't need the permission of school districts to start a parent group.
But parents in the Ferguson-Florissant School District got support from school officials when they started a group nearly two years ago to increase parental support.
The group's leader, Lisa Hundelt, met recently with Walker to talk about how to expand the group.
"I thought how great our district could be if there was a way to hold parents responsible to be involved with their children and their actions," said Hundelt, who has two children at Griffith Elementary School and one at Ferguson Middle School. "If people were more involved with their children, there would be better behavior and better test scores."
Project Appleseed had a less cooperative relationship with University City school officials, who balked years ago at distributing a fund-raising solicitation for the parents group. Later, parent pledges signed by more than 1,400 people languished without follow-up in school offices.
Walker found other ways to distribute his information. Parent pledges have gone to parents in 38 school districts in Missouri and 73 districts in Illinois. Walker estimates that the pledge has gone to 3 million parents through 1,700 school district nationwide. Schools that get federal Title I money must use some form of parental pledges.
Walker and others at Project Appleseed are working now with Iowans United to Save Our Schools, a group of parents, educators and community volunteers trying to get legislation to use casino and racetrack revenue to finance school construction.
Walker operates his part of Project Appleseed on less than $50,000 a year, which comes from parents and businesses, and local groups get to keep the money they raise, Walker said.
In the next 18 months, Walker's goal is to raise $1.5 million, with $120,000 going for a campaign to increase parental involvement in St. Louis Public Schools. Walker would like to recruit 5,000 parents to volunteer in city schools. Urban school districts often have higher truancy rates and less parental involvement than other schools. But those schools sometimes have made it less than easy for parents to volunteer, Walker said.
Walker thinks many parents are ready to step up.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch