Seeds of Change
The Grandfather of Parent Involvement: The Appleseed Origin Story
Once upon a time, in the inner-ring suburban community of University City in St. Louis, there lived a passionate and determined African-American father named Kevin Walker. It was the early 1990s, and Kevin, a father of four who worked from home full-time, keenly observed the pressing need for active family involvement in education. He saw the gap between schools and communities and felt a burning desire to bridge it. Little did he know that this journey would transform him into a legend akin to Johnny Appleseed.
Kevin Walker (pictured in the middle) with his ex-wife, four children, daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren.
In 1993, Kevin fearlessly took the leap and founded Project Appleseed, igniting a powerful movement dedicated to promoting family engagement in education. Drawing from his experience as a former political organizer involved in influential events like Earth Day and Hands Across America, as well as his work in various presidential campaigns within the Democratic Party, Kevin recognized that education needed a true movement to bring about lasting change.
Teacher magazine chronicled Kevin's journey, "Having withdrawn from the itinerant life of a veteran campaigner to spend more time with his young children, he heard that his suburban University City school district was inviting parents to participate in strategic planning. Walker accepted the invitation and, bitten by the reform bug, founded a small parents' group that eventually evolved into the local chapter of Parents for Public Schools. He soon became the Midwestern regional director of PPS, leading a successful lobbying campaign to force Missouri's school districts to submit an annual progress report to parents. Walker began Project Appleseed in 1993 as a side venture for his PPS chapter. But the project quickly overshadowed the chapter."
Undeterred by skepticism and resistance, Kevin became an unwavering champion for the cause of family engagement. He understood the transformative potential it held, particularly for low-income and underserved schools, just like the ones his own children attended. Kevin's vision was clear and resolute: family engagement had to become a systemic and sustained strategy. With limited resources but boundless determination, Project Appleseed inspired parents, educators, and community members nationwide to rally behind this crucial cause.
Parents are their children’s first teachers, and the U.S. Department of Education supports the power of parent partnership with educators as a key lever for the success of every child. During this webinar, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona celebrated these powerful partnerships while sharing Department priorities. Thank you Secretary Cardona!
Throughout his remarkable journey, Kevin faced personal challenges as he navigated the complexities of parenthood while tirelessly advocating for educational change. His efforts did not go unnoticed. Kevin's dedication and achievements gained national recognition. Teacher Magazine named him one of the Top 10 people in American Education, and Education Week, its sister media platform, extensively covered his work. Parenting magazine honored him with the Parenting Leader Award, and locally, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shined an enormous spotlight on his remarkable contributions. The coverage amplified Kevin's message of empowerment and advocacy, inspiring educators, parents, and communities across the United States.
Guided by research conducted by the esteemed Rand Corporation, "Cities Mobilize to Improve Their Schools," Kevin advocated for mobilizing public school parents through the implementation of learning compacts and local parent involvement policies. He recognized that the key ingredients for school improvement lay within the local community itself. Furthermore, he pushed for the widespread availability of school performance information, ensuring that parents were empowered with the knowledge they needed to actively engage in their children's education.
The late Chuck Berry and Kevin Walker in the U. City Loop, near the Chuck Berry statue and St. Louis Walk of Fame.
In a display of visionary thinking, Project Appleseed became one of the first nonprofits to harness the power of the internet for education reform. With support from prestigious institutions like the University of Denver and Washington University in St. Louis, Project Appleseed established Gopher Sites, utilizing the nascent technology to connect and empower parents and educators long before the World Wide Web became widely known.
Driven by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, Kevin enrolled in Washington University's Total Quality Schools program, a joint initiative for MBA and MSW graduate students. For six years, he immersed himself in the program, both as a student and a guest lecturer, honing his expertise and sharing his wisdom with aspiring educators.
Kevin's impact was first felt within the borders of his home state of Missouri. There, he proposed groundbreaking school report card legislation known as the Missouri Public School Accountability Report Card. Passed by the state's legislature in 1993, this pivotal legislation mandated that all public schools disclose comprehensive statistics on students, staff, finances, academic achievement, and other key indicators. The information is continually re-posted by news organizations such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. By promoting transparency and accountability, it served as a catalyst for educational improvement.
In 1994, Project Appleseed achieved two significant milestones under Kevin's leadership. First, leveraging his expertise in presidential politics, he proposed new parent involvement legislation to the White House, meeting with Dr. Wlliam Galston, Deputy Assistant to President Clinton for Domestic Policy, resulting in the establishment of significant provisions for parental engagement within the Title I ESEA legislation, which have since been renewed under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the current Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). These provisions have shaped the landscape of family-school partnerships across the nation.
Later in 1994, Kevin's efforts culminated when he established the first annual National Parental Involvement Day. In 1997 he also established the first annual Public School Volunteer Week. Drawing from his experiences with impactful events like Hands Across America and Earth Day, Kevin understood the importance of dedicating a day to focus on policy and celebrate parenting.
In past years, National Parental Involvement Day has garnered significant attention, with major announcements taking center stage. Notably, in 2012, The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention (CDC) collaborated with Project Appleseed to release valuable resources and organize events, focusing on parent engagement in school health for the 18th annual National Parental Involvement Day.
Today, on Project Appleseed's 28th Annual National Parental Involvement Day, leaders from prominent educational organizations gathered for a National PTA virtual town hall. The alphabet soup of major national organizations, including the National PTA, American Association of School Administrators (AASA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), and the National School Boards Association (NSBA), came together to discuss new standards for parent and family engagement. This gathering was a testament to the enduring influence of Kevin's work in shaping a national day to focus on parents. U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, as a special guest, emphasized the profound impact of parents in the education system.
Over the years, Kevin Walker's legend has grown. The late Michelle Molnar, an Education Week associate editor, fondly nicknamed him the "grandfather of parent involvement" in America. A black father, now grandfather, from fly-over-country, can easily be overlooked by elites. But his message reached a broader audience resonating from the heart of the country - red states and blue states - while also reaching the political and educational decision makers.
Arne Duncan and Kevin Walker at the Grant Makers for Education Conference in Chicago.
Kevin lives in the same Webster Groves School District he attended as a student and he continues to travel the nation, sharing his knowledge and empowering educators to effectively engage parents and families. His teachings, much like the fabled Johnny Appleseed, plant the seeds of school improvement, ensuring that future generations receive the quality education they deserve.
As Kevin's story continues to unfold, his indomitable spirit and unwavering commitment will undoubtedly inspire countless individuals to join the cause of promoting family engagement in education. With his remarkable journey as a testament, Kevin Walker has left an indelible mark on the landscape of education, shaping the lives of students and the future of our society for generations to come.
Are you ready to be a catalyst for change in education? Join Project Appleseed and be a catalyst for change in education. Plant the Family Engagement Toolbox in your schools today! Like seeds of an apple tree, your actions can shape the future. Engage with parents, educators, and students, fostering collaboration. Advocate for transparent and accountable education systems. Inspire others to join the cause. Together, we can sow the seeds of change. Join Project Appleseed today!
Note: This is the first in a series as we celebrate our milestone 30th anniversary, We reflect on the tremendous achievements and recognition that Project Appleseed has garnered over the years.