Minerva Sanders is spending a lot of time thinking about power these days.
As a telecommunications systems designer, she's seen people move mountains in the corporate world. As a mother, she knows that children can overcome obstacles to achieve phenomenal success against the odds.
As a community activist, she has been at the forefront of battles that have netted positive results because the participants were passionate about their mission.
Power and passion are qualities she hopes to impart to parents, and their children, during her second year as president of the Prince George's County Council of PTAs.
"People have to be advocates for their children, to be involved in their education, to make sure that the schools are providing what they need to learn," Sanders said. "We have to make sure we are doing the best we can for them. Parents have the authority to do that. They should be actively involved in their children's learning."
Sanders, of Clinton, an Oklahoman who moved to Prince George's County in 1986, sent three boys through local public schools. Her youngest is 21.
Now, she remains involved because she has a 1-year-old grandson, Nigel, who will be in the public schools in just a few years. "The reason I'm still involved is that I want my grandson to have good schools in Prince George's County when it's time for him to go to school," she said. "I can't stop now because my children have graduated. It takes a village."
The village responsible for helping to educate Prince George's County's children, Sanders admits, is in a bit of turmoil right now. The council of PTAs, with 16,000 members, represents 88 of the county's 183 public schools and is working to mobilize parents at a time when the schools, in many people's eyes, couldn't be much worse:
* School Superintendent Jerome F. Clark is leaving, and no successor has been named.
* More than 1,500 of the county's 7,000 teachers are uncertified in Maryland--the second-highest rate in the state, next to Baltimore.
* Maryland School Performance Assessment Program scores for students are lower than any other school district except Baltimore.
* An independent audit last summer took the system to task for not encouraging parental involvement and for making it difficult for parents to get information.
Teacher flight to better-paying counties. Low morale among parents. No air conditioning or wiring for computers in some schools. The list goes on.
Parental involvement in the county is sporadic and varies largely by school, activists said. On a system-wide level, parents generally have been fairly quiet; at two of the three public hearings on the budget before the school board, fewer than two dozen parents showed up, while 40 to 50 attended the third. "The school system doesn't really support parent involvement because they want cheerleaders and not partners," said Joan Roache, of Bowie, who attends most board meetings and public hearings, even though her children have graduated. "They want you to come and bake cookies but not have opinions. They make it difficult for parents to get information. And to get involved, you have to be persistent."
Sanders said that many parents are intimidated by the complexity of the budgeting process and the school bureaucracy and that many haven't become skilled in pushing the school system to work for them and their children.
Sanders said she understands why many parents in Prince George's are thinking about selling their houses and moving to Montgomery, Charles, Calvert or other counties with less troubled school systems. As a middle-class mother, Sanders had the option of moving or putting her children in private schools. She chose to stay in public schools and fight to make them better.
"We've all got to do this together," she said. "The mission of our PTA council is to encourage parents and the community to become active advocates on educational issues, whether on a local, state or national basis. We want to help parents develop skills to make them better advocates in their children's schools. We want everybody working as advocates for children."
Sanders began her career as a school activist at Surrattsville High School in the early 1990s when a group of parents started a PTA there. She was elected treasurer of the countywide PTA council three years ago and last year was elected to a two-year term as president. She is perturbed that many of the PTAs at individual schools in the county don't belong to the council, which she believes would help them all. "Our goal for next year is to make it 183 schools" represented by the council, she said.
Alvin Thornton (Suitland), chairman of the Prince George's County school board, said Sanders's commitment is helping to invigorate what had been a fairly low-profile organization. "I find her to be a hard-working and conscientious president," he said.
Sanders said she hopes PTAs will become a more politically active force in the county. She acknowledges that the structure of PTAs has changed over the years and that many parents are sometimes confused about the mission of the organizations. In many schools, the PTAs act as not much more than an adjunct to the school administration, with their major function being fund-raising and assisting school administrators with activities for students and parents.
But Sanders said the goal of the local PTAs should be to work for children, not principals. "Parents have to say to their PTAs that it's nice that we raise funds, but these are the issues we are concerned about, like why does this teacher yell or why is this lunch schedule like this?" she said.
To educate parents, the council is sponsoring a forum from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Prince George's Community College. It will focus on the importance of parental involvement, student safety, working with the legislature and promoting accountability in local education. To further increase parental involvement, the PTA council plans to produce a twice-weekly television show on Channel 12, starting in the fall, and to conduct town hall-style discussions with school board members.
"We as parents don't have the authority to hire and fire. But we can work with the principals to let them know what our expectations are and how we expect things in the school building should be," she said. "We can make them understand that we expect them to listen to our concerns because we are working for the children."
She said parents should never be so cozy with school administrators that they hesitate to speak up for children. "Many times we want to give school administrations their due and let them try to handle problems, and we don't step up," Sanders said. "PTA presidents need to understand that it is okay for us to work with school administrators but that it is also okay for us to disagree. When we disagree, we need to bring an alternative."
Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.
For more information on the summit, call the Prince George's County Council of PTAs at 301-408-5539. Sanders can be reached at home at 301-856-4850.
CAPTION: Minerva Sanders is president of the County Council of PTAs.