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The Power of Parents 

The success of schools depends on more than the board and the superintendent -- it also involves parents. Ursula and D.J. Markey once sued the district for not educating their autistic son; now, they're training other parents and partnering with two publi

For parents whose kids have disabilities, there's one refrain in town. "People say, ŒYou need D.J. and Ursula,'" says Rosalind Condoll-Johnson, who three years ago sought help from D.J. and Ursula Markey and their organization, the Pyramid Community Parent Resource Center. "They've been there, they've been through the process," Condoll-Johnson says.

It's that personal experience, as former Orleans Parish schoolteachers and as parents of a child with a disability, that prompted the Markeys to seek an historic partnership with two Orleans Parish schools. This fall, they'll begin teambuilding with parents at Israel Augustine Middle School and McDonogh 28 Junior High School. This collaboration is an example of how Orleans Parish Schools can benefit from using locally based, nationally recognized experts such as the Markeys, whose work has received the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Leadership Award, among other accolades.

The collaboration is also significant because research links parental involvement with a child's educational success, says Karen Mapp, president of the Boston-based Institute for Responsive Education and co-author of the 2003 book A New Wave of Evidence, which examined more than 50 studies on the topic. In communities with many at-risk kids, parents sometimes are less involved because they themselves haven't had good experiences with schools, Mapp explains. Training changes that. "Parents become more confident about their ability to have an effect on their child's education," she says. "Programs like this can be very successful."

In 1972, the Markeys, both college students studying to be schoolteachers, had their first child, Duane. By 1975, he had been diagnosed with autism, at that time a relatively unknown disability.

By the time Duane was 5, he had already been kicked out of schools, and teachers were recommending that he go on medication. The Markeys needed to determine what was best for him. "We really had to make the law work in our lives," says Ursula. At the time, Orleans Parish Schools lumped together all kids with disabilities. "You had kids with autism in classes for children who were blind or not hearing. It was a hodge-podge," she says. "And the placement process was trial and error -- ŒLet's try him here, let's try him there.'"

The Markeys created their own support network that included their close friends Loyola professor Ted Quant and his wife, Brenda, and Advocacy Center attorney Jim Comstock-Galagan, who advised them about the relatively new federal law that guaranteed individualized education for every child. "Jim was there telling us, ŒYou have a right to this, you have a right to that,'" Ursula says.

But Orleans Parish didn't have a place for Duane, who was diagnosed as a high-functioning autistic child. By the mid-1980s, the Markeys -- who by then were both teaching in the district -- decided to sue Orleans Parish Schools for failing to provide an individualized education for their child.

In the end, their lawsuit was victorious. "We had won the right to send him to a special school of our choice," says Ursula. But by that time, they were finding that Duane -- like many other kids with disabilities -- flourished more when he spent time in a regular public school classroom. "What we had learned was that you can't take your child out of the community to prepare him to live in it," she says. "So we had won something we didn't want."

That lesson was reinforced when Duane moved to Alcee Fortier Senior High School and landed a "teacher par excellence" named Macon Fry, Ursula says. "Macon used our son's strengths and interests, one of which was basketball," she explains. "So he made Duane a coach and they went to all the games." The two continued to stay in touch and go to ballgames together until Duane's death in December 1998.

The Markeys discovered that their newfound knowledge was also important to the rest of the community. Ursula recalls that after one success, she saw her secretary weep because she had a 22-year-old with disabilities and never knew children had a right to services. Moments like that motivated the Markeys to launch Pyramid in 1991, says Ursula. "That day, I went home and told D.J., ŒWe've got to do something. This can't happen anymore, ever.'"

In 1996, Ursula was invited to testify before Congress on behalf of families from underserved communities -- people who are isolated because of racism, discrimination, and language and literacy barriers. Testimony about the underserved came naturally, she says. "We lived with them; they were around us," she says. "Our neighbors would say, ŒI see Duane doing this, how did you do that?' We'd learn and teach them."

Along the way, the Markeys picked up Positive Behavorial Support, a book of scientific case studies about people with challenging behaviors. "It was difficult, but I said we are going to pick this sucker apart and see what this is about," Ursula says. They read it cover to cover and began to employ its principles in their home. "We began noticing the many wonderful things our son did," Ursula explains. "And the more we noticed, the more he did them."

They sat down with Duane and discussed his memories and goals; when they equipped his room with a computer, he began to write. From this experience, they started the Pyramid program Operation Positive Change, which teaches parents those same strategies using materials now endorsed by the trio of researchers who wrote Positive Behavorial Support.

Still, it's clear to the Markeys that crucial information -- about both educational rights and children's behavior -- doesn't reach many families. "As we travel the streets of New Orleans, we see parents who are under pressure from poverty or whatever, stressed out and taking it out on their kids," says Ursula, who empathizes because, at one time, she wouldn't take Duane anywhere by herself because of worries about how he'd behave.

"We have walked that walk," Ursula says, and that itself gets the attention of parents -- any parents, regardless of their educational or socioeconomic background. Some professionals believe that children from distressed communities can only benefit from medication, not behavior-changing programs. Pyramid parents prove otherwise. "We hardly have anyone who's been to college," Ursula says. "But what we have are brilliant women and men who know how to stretch a dollar, work a shift so that one of them is present when the other one can't be, who struggle to get a better place for their kids."

Only one qualification is essential, she emphasizes. "What is necessary is that nothing will stand in the way of you educating yourself about your child."

Condoll-Johnson, a retired nurse whose son Simeon will head into public school next year, says that parents at Augustine and McDonogh 28 will be relieved by this partnership, because they won't be called at their jobs and asked to come to school if their kids are acting out. "If I'm a minimum-wage parent, I won't be fearful about losing hours because I have to go to the school to do something that the staff there could do by working with me," she says.

The Markeys' old friends Jim Comstock-Galagan and Ted Quant are part of the collaboration, teaching advocacy and negotiation; Comstock-Galagan's wife, Charlene, who instructs teachers, will work with staff on how to include students. Condoll-Johnson believes that the new partnership has big possibilities. "With the entire school supporting these kids, it makes each parent breathe easier during the day," she says. "And it will help the kids feel like they are part of the big picture."

click to enlarge Parents need just one qualification to work with Pyramid Community Parent Resource Center, says Ursula Markey (pictured with her husband and partner, D.J.): "What is necessary is that nothing will stand in the way of you educating yourself about your child." - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Parents need just one qualification to work with Pyramid Community Parent Resource Center, says Ursula Markey (pictured with her husband and partner, D.J.): "What is necessary is that nothing will stand in the way of you educating yourself about your child."
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