Union and Parents Join Forces to Improve School Conditions

Sitting between the more prominent cities of Philadelphia to the east and Pittsburgh to the west, Reading might seem like the city Pennsylvania forgot. But the once thriving railroad community is still one of the prime properties on the Monopoly game board, and there is a group of Reading education activists determined to make sure all students pass Go.

Miriam Feliciano is one of the Reading School District’s most effective activists, but she’d say she’s just being a good mom.

When her son Luis told her there were no doors on any of the stalls in the bathrooms at school, Feliciano marched into Thomas Ford Elementary and hung a shower curtain in one. Soon, Luis said, all the boys were lining up to use “his bathroom.”

Then Luis began complaining of the unbearable heat in the building. When he came home with a headache and a high fever, Feliciano rushed him to the emergency room where she was told he was severely dehydrated and needed to be given special serum at the hospital. The heat in the school had reached 120 degrees that day.

Thomas H. Ford Elementary School in Reading, PA

That’s when Feliciano began to organize. She collected signatures of the other parents and staff at the school. She took pictures and collected evidence about the conditions in the building, filling a three-ring binder.

“I worked for fifteen years at law firm in Puerto Rico,” she says. “I knew I needed to build a case.”

Then she took her binder and her 200 parent signatures to the Reading School District board meeting. The next day, there were contractors at the school installing air conditioners in classrooms and doors on bathroom stalls.

“That’s the power of parents,” says Bob Miller, president of the Reading Education Association (REA).  “When you engage the parents – who are also the voters – the school board responds.”

Feliciano is now the president of the Thomas Ford Elementary Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). And the goal of the REA, the Reading School District, and the Pennsylvania PTA is to recruit parents like Feliciano to head up new PTAs at every school in the district. So far there are two PTAs in place, with two expected by the end of this school year, and the rest to be established by next school year’s end.

A Town in Transition

It wasn’t that long ago that there was a very strong PTA presence in Reading. But those parents have since moved out to the suburbs, taking their substantial tax base with them. Their once stately single family homes have been converted into multifamily apartments that house the new Hispanic population, which comprises nearly 60 percent of the city’s residents.

Read the rest of this story and learn more about tapping into parent potential on NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign website.