In Partnership with 74

Shirley Ford, passionate Los Angeles education advocate and co-founder of Parent Revolution, dies

Laura Greanias | February 11, 2018

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A memorial service for Shirley Ford will be held at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 3, at 24th Street Elementary School. Please email to RSVP and to share thoughts, memories, pictures, and stories. 

Shirley Ford, 69, a Los Angeles mother who helped pass California’s landmark “parent trigger” legislation and made an indelible mark in the national movement for high-quality schools for underserved communities, died Sunday after battling cancer, eliciting an outpouring of tributes in California and throughout the country.

Ford’s dogged search for good schools for her two boys was the beginning of her fight for educational justice, ensuring that all families — no matter their ZIP code — had good options for their children. Her sons attended Ánimo Inglewood Charter High School, and she springboarded from support for the school and its network, Green Dot Public Schools, to becoming a co-founder of Parent Revolution and helping get a state law passed that allows parents to force change at failing schools.

“There are advocates all over the country that carry her spirit and her mission with them,” said Seth Litt, executive director of Parent Revolution. “She worked nationally to help other underserved families find their voices.”

Ford wrote for LA School Report two years ago this week about her search for good schools for her sons: “Like so many young African-American boys, they were quickly labeled with alleged ‘learning disabilities’ when they starting committing normal, minor infractions in class. At a young age, they started to become disengaged and apathetic about school. I quickly started to become desperate. I knew that my sons needed a great education if they were going to be successful, and I realized it was my job to make that happen – nobody else was going to do it for me.”

Her interventions started early. “I tried everything I could to get them into a better public school. When that didn’t work, I applied for financial aid at a local private school, but was denied.” By middle school, her sons were falling further and further behind. At the high school they were zoned for, Inglewood High, fewer than 1 in 10 students were at grade level.

A flyer on her doorstep told her about a new independent charter school. “I had no idea what a charter school was, but I was out of good options, so I decided to go check out their upcoming meeting.”

That began her long history with Green Dot Public Schools and then the larger Los Angeles education community. She helped found Parent Revolution and served as its director of community partnerships. Parent Revolution helps families in underserved communities navigate the school choice process by evaluating school quality, understanding their options, and applying for schools.

More recently, she helped launch Parent Revolution’s Choice4LA campaign to help families in LA’s most underserved communities to understand all their options and select the right school for their child. And she supported the families of Los Angeles’s 20th Street Elementary School, who fought for major school improvements for over two years and through the parent trigger law ended up with new leadership in the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which took over in 2016.

Last fall, state test scores showed that the elementary school had the highest math gains of any traditional school in the LA Unified district.

When her oldest son, Robert, graduated from Ánimo Inglewood, he became the first in her family to graduate from college. He went on to become a teacher.

Ford “became a hero to many and a national leader and inspiration, because she did not stop at her own children, but spent the rest of her life fighting for children all over California and the United States,” Litt said. “Shirley was an unapologetic champion for underserved children, especially children of color and believed totally in their abilities and possibilities. While the world is a little less bold and special with her gone, she leaves behind a strong legacy and mission that many of will continue to fight for.”

Marshall Tuck, who is running for state superintendent of public schools, paid tribute to Ford in an article he wrote for LA School Report last year.

“I started my full-time career in public education helping to build a nonprofit charter school organization called Green Dot Public Schools. I had always liked the flexibility of charters and the idea of innovation driving change, but I really bought into them when I met Shirley Ford, one of the first parents I met while working at Green Dot,” he wrote. “Shirley worked hard to help us build Ánimo Inglewood Charter High School, one of our Green Dot schools, and Robert graduated from that school before going on to become a teacher.”

“Shirley is survived by thousands of children who will never know her name but whose lives will be forever transformed because of her courage, passion, and love,” said Ben Austin, who invented and spearheaded the parent trigger law, co-founded Parent Revolution, and now runs a new nonprofit, Kids Coalition.

“She embodied Robert Kennedy’s famous quote that ‘there are those that look at things the way they are and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?'”

Austin said when he first met Ford, “the parent trigger was just another radical new idea. But through her courage, intelligence, and sheer force of will, Shirley led the way to translate that radical new idea into a new law and a new movement. Shirley’s entire life has been characterized by her unique combination of fierce but happy advocacy for social and educational justice. Even in her final days Shirley never stopped asking, ‘Why not?'”

Katie Braude, executive director of the parent advocacy group Speak UP, said in an email: “Shirley served on the Board of Speak UP, and we were honored to have the opportunity to benefit from her wisdom and passion over the past two years. She was a tireless advocate for the educational rights of our city’s most underserved children and a champion of true parent power. And she was helping us organize parents through December, even as she battled her illness. She will be terribly missed, but her spirit will inspire us as we strive to carry on her life’s work and do her proud.”

Tenicka Boyd, national director of the Leaders of Color Initiative for Democrats for Education Reform, wrote: “Shirley was, for me, the epitome of a parent advocate. She was led by her heart, her tenacity, and her everlasting belief that education equity could liberate all children regardless of their zip code.”

Mendell Grinter, founder and executive director of the Campaign for School Equity and the former Tennessee state director of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, wrote: “We are all deeply saddened to hear of Shirley’s death. She meant a great deal to everyone in this work. She was kind, warm, and a fierce advocate for children. There will be no one like Shirley Ford.”

Dr. Howard Fuller, founder and chair emeritus of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, wrote in a Tweet: “Shirley was a TRUE warrior for our children.”


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