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Parents United leader steps down

After 16 years leading fight for better public schools, Rice-Thurston

to leave post as youngest son graduates from Wilson Sr. High

(Published June 19, 2000)

By JOEL FURFARI

Staff Writer

"Moxie" is a word Parents United Executive Director Delabian Rice-Thurston says often when she talks about other people, but those involved with the District’s public schools say she has plenty of it herself.

She has used that moxie to become the most visible and vocal advocate for parents of D.C. students, steering the course of Parents United through the public school system’s troubled waters for the last 16 years.

And now that her youngest son Edward has graduated from Wilson Senior High School, she’s stepping aside. The organization’s leader, Rice-Thurston asserts, should have a child enrolled in the city’s public schools.

"When I testify (at public hearings), one of the most important things I say is that I’m a parent of a D.C. public school student," she said.

Mary Levy, a lawyer and school finance analyst who has worked closely with Parents United, said Rice-Thurston’s longtime experience as a parental advocate will be missed.

"There is no way that anyone can replace Delabian. We’ve been begging her to adopt another child," she joked.

Sheila Carr, who chairs the group’s board, said Rice-Thurston "will be sorely, sorely, sorely missed as head of the organization."

Rice-Thurston began leading Parents United in 1984, when her oldest son David was in kindergarten. She is widely remembered for leading the group’s long-running legal fight that began in 1994 when Parents United went to court to force the city to enforce fire codes in school buildings. During her tenure, observers credit Rice-Thurston’s leadership with bringing an undeniably higher profile to Parents United.

She has testified at countless school meetings on subjects ranging from budget crises to the need for more school nurses. Over the years she has supported efforts to teach more foreign language courses and provide better art, physical education and music programs for the city’s poorest students. Rice-Thurston also spearheaded Parents United’s first student achievement ceremony, held last month at MCI Center.

In a school system rife with overhauls, shakeups and instability, Rice-Thurston’s admirers said her presence and longevity have been major assets for Parents United.

"She knows the ins and outs and she knows the history of DCPS, so that if they say they have some new plan, she can say, ‘unh-uh, you tried that back in 1988 and it didn’t work,’" Carr said.

Levy called Rice-Thurston "maybe the strongest person I’ve ever known in terms of inner strength."

Rice-Thurston has needed to summon that inner strength, at times, to deal with school officials. She said she wishes school administrators had been more willing to listen to the concerns of parents.

"Nobody wants to be called on the carpet, and because what we were doing was (getting) the school system’s resources to make these improvements, it was very hard for us to have them take this so badly," she said.

Rice-Thurston described Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s impending July 17 departure to take over San Francisco’s public schools as unfortunate, despite her parent advocacy role sometimes making her look like the superintendent’s opponent.

"I was really disappointed because it takes three to five years – everybody says – for a school system to really start moving," she said. "It took us a year for her to take our organization seriously as something other than a potential gnat."

While Rice-Thurston said she wanted cooperation between parents and school administrators all along, she also said she’s willing to confront the city’s educators and politicians when necessary.

"I’m hoping that the next person who comes in (as superintendent) will understand that they need strong parents behind them, so that when they go to the mayor and council with the things that the school system needs, they will be more likely to get it," she said.

"What we were trying to do was help not just the schools with middle-class parents who you know are going to stand up for their child and their child’s school and the school system, but to help the parents in low-income schools understand that if something is wrong, they’ve got to testify about it, they’ve got to embarrass the school system about it, and that’s how you squeak and you get the resources."

The outgoing executive director said she will continue leading Parents United until the group’s board of directors finds a replacement. It’s clear that whoever that is will inherit a group that has earned a reputation for being unafraid to take a stand on school issues.

"I remember when I first took this job, there was some statement, the ‘so-called Parents United’... well we’re no longer ‘so-called’ much of anything- we are," she said.

"The person who comes in will have the good fortune, I think, to have behind them a good name for the organization. So I’m hoping that whoever this person is will be able to maintain our relations with the policymakers and improve them, particularly in the low-income neighborhoods."

Rice-Thurston also offered some advice for her successor: "State issues clearly so that the parents believe it and so that policymakers know that what you’re saying is based on fact, because many times they will try to say, ‘This is a paid activist’ – or try in some way to denigrate your statements or to say that they’re not valid or that they’re just from one segment of the population."

People who have worked with Rice-Thurston say she has taken her own advice to heart and that she doesn’t mince words.

"Delabian only cares about whether it will advance the education of children," Levy said. "She’s not interested in whether people like her."

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator