Meet the PAA founders: Leonie Haimson

This profile is part of an ongoing series of portraits of key PAA members.

In the beginning, there was Leonie Haimson.

Leonie was a key force in the creation of Parents Across America, and remains at the heart of our activities. From her computer in her Greenwich Village office, she writes, researches, and stays in touch with activists and reporters across the country. After more than a decade of educational work, she has become an expert in the ins and outs of politics and policy – how to organize a conference or a demonstration, when to alert the press to an important story, when and how to investigate a dubious educational claim.

Leonie always grounds her actions in schoolhouse-level reality, drawing on her lengthy experience as a New York public school parent. Her educational activism began when her daughter was in first grade in a large class at a New York City public elementary school, and the teacher remarked how much more the children learned on days when some of them were absent. Leonie, then a reporter on environmental issues, did some digging and realized how important small classes were for teachers, students and schools. Acting on that information, she built a non-profit organization, Class Size Matters, that uses an extensive research base to advocate for small classes around the country.

Her concerns about public education expanded as New York education came under mayoral control, cutting everyone else including parents out of the process, and as the corporate “reform” movement began to demonize teachers, ramp up high-stakes testing and promote privatizing measures such as charter schools.

Although we don’t have room to list all her activities, one of her focal points has been the always lively New York City Public School Parent blog, which has become a center for information and discussions about New York City schools, and which helped her expose the recent Pineapplegate standardized test scandal. She has become a familiar figure in neighborhoods all across New York: speaking to parent groups, participating in rallies, helping individual parents file complaints, passing on the organizing strategies she’s learned in her many years of hands-on activism.

PAA came out of the contacts forged by Leonie and educational activists working in other communities around the country. These contacts helped them realize that many of them were battling the same forces and the same bad ideas. “A lot of us were saying the same things and fighting for the same things,” Leonie explained. “We thought if we got together it would amplify our voices.”

Leonie has been one of PAA’s cornerstones since our start, working on the website, maintaining the listserv, writing policy papers, serving as our first fiscal agent and helping to lead discussions on key issues. Fueled by “the outrage I feel about the way our schools are being undermined and our kids are being deprived,” she dispenses inspiration, timely advice, and gentle nudges to keep going. We’re all familiar with her frequent request: “Could you post something on the PAA blog about that?”

Although it’s hard for an organization with a shoestring budget to combat the well-financed forces of privatization, Leonie is proud of the variety of actions that PAA and its members have taken and of the respect the organization has gained with the quality of its position papers and its stands on key issues such as class size, testing, fairness and equity.

“Our strength is that we’re right on the issues and most parents agree with us,” she explains. “Our message resonates with a lot of people.”

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