Community organizer Tina Hone aims to amplify the voices of underserved kids in Fairfax County

February 19, 2012

Tina Hone built a reputation during her tenure on the Fairfax County School Board as an ally of parents battling the superintendent over issues ranging from discipline code reform to later high school start times.

Those whose causes Hone championed, however, were not the people she had envisioned representing — low-income and minority parents whose voices are often missing from public debate over school policy. Instead, they were savvy advocates who knew how to tussle for the concessions they wanted.

“I ended up accidentally empowering people who were already empowered,” she said.

So, 12 days after leaving office last year, she returned to the boardroom to announce the creation of the Coalition of The Silence — a group dedicated to organizing and amplifying the voices of black kids, Latino kids, poor kids and kids with disabilities.

“Too often, in the four years I served on the School Board as its only African American member, decisions were made that impacted these students without input from their communities,” Hone told her former colleagues last month. “The silence will be silent no more.”


Tina Hone says she recognizes herself in the kids she aims to help. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Hone, 49, said she recognizes herself in the kids she aims to help. She grew up with her mother on the south side of Chicago. She saw her father, a Yugoslavian immigrant, on weekends. His side of the family pitied her as a poor black kid, the product of unwed parents.

“Everyone in his family described me as a tragedy,” Hone said. “They dismissed me.”

But she excelled in school, eventually graduating from law school at the University of California at Berkeley. She ran for the School Board in 2007 to help other kids write similar success stories — and to make sure no one forgot the needs of poor and minority families, even if those families didn’t attend meetings.

Several of her former board colleagues say she succeeded. She was a passionate and sometimes tearful advocate on issues ranging from summer school cuts to admissions policies at the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, where black and Latino students account for less than 4 percent of students.

But she took a central role in other fights, too, and expressed outrage so often that some board members sometimes seemed to tune her out, said Michael Hairston, president of the Fairfax Education Association. He said Hone might be more effective now, with a tightly focused mission and an army of parents behind her.

“She has clout in the community,” he said. “That may help the cause.”

The nascent Coalition of The Silence has attracted special-education advocates, members of the NAACP, Urban League and the school system’s Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee. It also includes parents who have never been politically active in the school system but see the coalition as an opportunity to speak out.

Among them was Rhonda Mustafaa, a mother of three who moved to Fairfax last year. She said it took six months and a “lot of sweat and tears” to persuade school officials to allow her sons to enroll in gifted and talented classes, despite documentation from their previous school.

“It shouldn’t have been that hard,” she said, adding that she hoped the coalition would “highlight these issues that often go unnoticed.”

A decade ago, the School Board had three African American members and one Latino. Now the only minority member is Ilryong Moon (At Large), a Korean immigrant who came to the United States at 17.

Fairfax County, meanwhile, has become more racially diverse, with a greater proportion of low-income families. Arthur Lopez, an advocate for Latino schoolchildren, said he hopes the coalition can offer perspectives to reflect the range of realities that Fairfax students experience.

Chief among the coalition’s goals is bringing new urgency to achievement gaps — between black and Latino students on the one hand and whites and Asians on the other, and between poor children and their middle-class peers.

Those gaps have narrowed in recent years, but there are still disparities in almost every measure, from Advanced Placement exam scores to high school graduation rates. Latino students in the Class of 2011 were nine times more likely to drop out than white students, for example. Black students were four times more likely to do so.

“What do we think — poor children are just genetically stupid?” Hone said. “Fairfax County ought to be big enough and bad enough to take a kid from nothing and educate him into the highest levels of academic achievement.”

The coalition will advocate for the restoration of programs cut during the recession that are particularly important for kids from poor families, including summer school and year-round schooling.

The group will press for closer examination of what it says is the disproportionate suspension and expulsion of minority students and students with disabilities. And it will campaign for new measures to ensure that all kids can read by the end of third grade, a powerful indicator of future academic success.

They will also aim to dismantle subtle barriers that make it difficult for some parents to chime in on public debates.

For example: People who want to speak before the School Board are asked to register in advance. Sign-up is online and begins at 6 a.m. three days before each meeting. There are 10 slots available for public testimony, and sometimes they’re filled in minutes by savvy advocates who set their alarm clocks.

Hone and her supporters don’t begrudge the work of those more established activists.

But “let’s take a step into reality,” said Lolita Mancheno-Smoak, an Ecuadorean immigrant who heads the coalition’s Latino working group. “How many parents that are holding two or three jobs can do this?”

Families who don’t have an Internet-connected computer at home can’t compete with networks of organized advocates, she said. Unless that changes, she said, “Who are you going to hear? Only certain voices.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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