(The Lion) — When trouble arose in her kids’ school district, Ashley Al-Shawish first decided to contact her Missouri legislators.
“I thought that if I went to Jefferson City, everything would change,” she said. “And that is a lot of it, but really I’ve had the most impact just going out into the community.”
Through her experience, Al-Shawish co-founded the “Parents Changing Education” group to help empower families in eastern Jackson County and beyond.
“I used to try to do it backwards. I would want to go to Jefferson City, come back and deliver great news,” she said. “Now I try to have a big group and say, ‘Hey, these 400 people really feel this way.’”
The group has already made an impact, endorsing several candidates for local school board elections in April 2022 and again for this year.
“We wanted to get together as a community advocate to help communicate, whether it was to the schools or whether it was to the legislators,” Al-Shawish said. “It really started off as a legislative initiative, and then now we’ve been communicating with schools as well.”
‘Multitude of frustrations’
Al-Shawish had moved to Lee’s Summit, a Kansas City suburb, in 2019, a year before the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, like many parents, she used virtual school with her kindergarten-age daughter before sending her back to class in the fall of 2020.
“That was a multitude of frustrations,” she said of her daughter’s experience in school, which required masks and extended screentime. Even though Al-Shawish asked to provide pen and paper learning materials for her daughter instead of computer-based programs, the school refused.
“She was only in first grade,” Al-Shawish said of her daughter. “She’s very high-percentile ADD.”
As Al-Shawish met more neighbors, she realized other parents were feeling unheard and unsupported at their schools regarding decisions on masks, vaccine mandates, and other issues. A group began informal meetings in her home.
“It started off just in my living room, throughout the month of December,” she said. “A few more people would invite a few more people.”
While attending a local school board meeting, Al-Shawish met Meghan Burch, a medical professional who was arguing against school policies that didn’t align with her clinical knowledge.
“A lot of the decisions that were being made ran really counter to what I had been taught as a nurse,” Burch said. “The responses from leadership in the school district and from the government just really conflicted with what I knew about viral transmission.”
Burch also has a special-needs daughter with a hearing disability, who was directly affected by the mask mandates.
“The mask mandate was really personal to me because I needed her to be able to see people’s faces,” she said. “I needed her to be able to see people speaking so she could learn to form words of her own.”
After meeting, both moms worked together on creating the parents group.
“She puts so much time and effort into issues with education, not just with the pandemic,” Burch said of Al-Shawish. “But that opened the door for a lot of other topics that we became concerned about.”
‘Build back the community’
Even though the group started in 2021, its founders have big plans for its future.
“Our overall mission is really to just build back the community, to establish some leadership on the board of education that prioritizes academic success for every student, and to find people who are brave, who are capable of making difficult decisions in really difficult times,” Burch said.
Burch also wants schools to work at closing achievement gaps, which widened dramatically after decisions to close in-person learning for students.
“The effects from the decisions that were made during that time will linger on for years,” she said. “Some of these kids may never recover their academic loss from that time and may never recover from the social-emotional aspect of that too.”
Meanwhile, much of the group’s work still takes place on the individual level. Al-Shawish meets with families who struggle with their children’s education but don’t know all their options.
“I think the biggest challenge is people don’t have enough resources to make the right decision,” she said.
Sometimes her work can involve processes within the public system, she said, such as helping parents apply for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for their child.
“Even if they’ve already applied, they just need someone to help push that process along, which just usually involves a few phone calls,” she said. “I don’t do anything legally, but I have helped a few different families for things like that.”
Other families choose alternative options such as homeschooling or private school, at which point Al-Shawish will work with them to find the right choice for their family.
She encourages all concerned parents to visit the group’s website and subscribe to its newsletter if they live anywhere in the Jackson County or KC metro area.
“We basically want to be the one-stop shop for, ‘My kid’s having trouble and I really want them to succeed in school, but I don’t know what to do,’” she said.
Other parents who want to expand their impact can also attend leadership trainings, such as the Grassroots Leadership Academy trainings by Americans for Prosperity.
Al-Shawish attended one of these in 2021 where she met Chandra Hendren, engagement director for Americans for Prosperity in the Northland.
“She saw a lot of parents being upset that their voice wasn’t heard at the local school district level,” Hendren said of Al-Shawish. “And she wanted to get more training herself … to make a difference and not just watch things happen, but actually make a difference and be that change.”
The training allows people to network and learn tools to communicate effectively with others to reach shared goals, Hendren said.
“One person can make a difference for hundreds of parents in their communities,” Hendren said, noting how Al-Shawish has already made a difference for hundreds of parents in the Lee’s Summit area.
“We’re happy to partner with everyone willing to learn and work on their skills. Anyone can learn and work together and help build the community in a positive way.”