Without their grassroots influence, our kids would not be as well off as they are today.

Illinois State Senator and Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford worked with COFI-trained parent leaders to pass a legislative resolution creating the Recess in Schools Task Force. She became a leading advocate for Recess for All! legislation in the Illinois State Legislature.

During my 14 years on the Senate Education Committee I have met many people and interacted with many parent groups who want to make a difference in Illinois’ public education system. One of those groups is COFI. The group has played a vital role in education advocacy for many years.

One of the issues I have worked with COFI on is Recess for All legislation. We have been trying to implement recess in Chicago Public Schools and all schools throughout the state. We started the process by trying to convince former School Board Chairman Rufus Williams and former CPS CEO Arnie Duncan that all the schools should have recess. Though they agreed that it was a good concept, they focused on talking to individual principals about recess instead of pushing a district-wide policy. This process took two or three years, but we made some significant progress. Then, President Obama tapped Duncan to become Secretary of Education, and we found ourselves back at square one because we had lost a key ally.

After our negotiations with CPS were reset, I suggested that we switch gears. I passed legislation in the General Assembly that created the Illinois Recess for All Task Force. I brought in COFI parents because I thought their voices needed to be heard beyond the public comments portion of CPS Board meetings. COFI came and testified in favor of the task force, bringing students who helped them lobby legislators on the Senate Education Committee and in the House.

The task force was a great success. COFI helped us come up with some great ideas. After the committee submitted its report, I drafted new legislation creating mandatory recess. However, though it passed the Senate, it stalled in the House. I have not let the issue die though—it is still on my radar. Now that I have passed a law requiring kids to start school by age 6, I think it might be time to revisit recess for all.

Another issue I have worked with COFI on is zero tolerance policies. The idea of zero tolerance emerged after the tragedy in Columbine. Like in many cases, people overreacted to a very real tragedy. They thought that kicking kids out of school who exhibit violent tendencies would help keep our kids safe. But the policy had some unintended consequences. We found that African-American, minority and low income students were affected by zero tolerance more than children from other communities. It resulted in more African-American kids being expelled than seemed right or fair.

COFI helped me ask the question “Why do we have such a high percentage of African-Americans being expelled, especially boys?” That led me to zero tolerance policies, which in turn made me start to ask questions about why kids were coming to school with weapons. I discovered that bullying was the root cause of many of these problems, and I started taking legislative action to make things better for our kids.

Outside of legislative issues, I have seen COFI play a very effective role in our schools because COFI parents are on the ground. They are part of day-to-day activities, extending themselves from parenting to volunteering at schools. Parent involvement is such an important part of the education process. COFI parents will walk kids to school and involve themselves in their children’s education at school. They know the environment. They know the kids. They know the parents. You can respect their judgment and believe what they say. They are willing to work in the trenches, not just show up for photo-ops.

Parent involvement is crucial. It helps kids succeed. It helps teachers succeed. It helps our schools succeed.

When you look at Chicago schools, there are amazing disparities. CPS has four or five schools of the top 20 high schools in Illinois, but at the other end, CPS has many of the bottom 100 schools. There are not many schools in-between.

COFI parents, especially those on the West Side, recognize that CPS has issues with resource distribution. They ask important questions about why some schools are flourishing, while other are struggling and why there are new turnaround schools and charter schools while neighborhood schools are closing.

I share COFI parents’ passion for trying to do what is best for their children. I appreciate their involvement in the policymaking process and their understanding of community needs.

I also really appreciate that COFI parents understand that crafting good policy can take years. When they see an issue they believe the state or city needs to address, they stick with it and see it through to the end. COFI leaders are committed, dedicated and steadfast.

Another one of COFI’s advantages is that it is not a huge organization. It is a small parent group with consistent leaders. Working on the issues is so much easier when you get the chance to build real relationships with people, when you see them regularly, communicate with them regularly, and learn their stances on the issues.

I value the fact that COFI parents can speak to the day-to-day challenges CPS students face and that they know the concerns of other parents in their communities. They let me know that I have a whole group of parents or a whole school community on my side. A lot of parents become education reform advocates when their kids are in school, but let things slide once they graduate. I respect COFI parents because they care about our children and our community regardless of whether or not their kids are still in school.

More than anything, COFI parents have helped me stand my ground and delve deeper into the issues facing our schools. COFI has not forgotten about recess for all kids. They are already asking about next steps. COFI did not stop at pointing out the problems with zero tolerance policies. Its members helped me discover that bullying is really at the root cause of a lot of behavior problems in our schools.

I also appreciate that COFI parents are willing to play an active role in the legislative process. They have come to the education committee ready to answer questions about how legislation will affect the kids in Chicago Public Schools. They were prepared and comfortable and ready to answer any questions that were thrown their way. More than that, COFI parents can provide institutional knowledge about some important topics because they have been following them for so long.

I do not have to reach out to COFI because COFI reaches out to me. COFI parents are persistent. They are not shy. I see COFI parents at all kinds of education meetings.

What COFI parent leaders do is important. I want to thank the mothers, fathers and concerned members of the community who have stepped up to fight for our children’s future. Without their grassroots influence, our kids would not be as well off as they are today.