AC JosepH Media
CAMDEN – Shirley Irizarry is the executive director of Parents for Great Camden Schools. PGCS is a nonprofit committed to improving academic performance for all students, regardless of where they live; while also working to close the achievement gap experienced by students.
The organization seeks to organize and empower Camden parents to advocate for high quality schools by highlighting their voices, their stories, and encouraging them speak publicly about their vision for Camden’s schools. PGCS fights for high academic performance, an environment conducive to learning, and a culture of innovation at all levels of every school
In our continuing series “Why I Serve,” we asked Irizarry several questions.
FRNJ: What led you to getting involved with Parents for Great Camden Schools?
Shirley Irizarry: I have been involved with PGCS since before it’s inception. Prior to its foundation in 2015, I started my journey into advocating for better schools when I became a part of the North Camden Little League (NCLL). I became involved with the league at a time when there were little to no activities for our youth to participate in during the spring and summer months, and even fewer activities for girls! I became a volunteer so that my kids, my nieces and nephews, and my neighbor’s kids could have something constructive to do. This led to me having conversations with parents about their children’s schools, what were they lacking, what did they like most about their schools, and how were they able to get their kids enrolled in these schools. Out of these conversations, we were able to begin organizing parents. NCLL parents were the first parent advocate leaders once PGCS was established. Now we work to inform, educate, and organize parents to advocate for high-quality education in the City of Camden, NJ.
FRNJ: What difference do you hope the organization will make?
Shirley Irizarry: PGCS has emerged as the parent support and advocacy group in an educational ecosystem with a variety of public school types, including traditional District, Charter and Renaissance schools. Our work in Camden meets a critical need – ensuring parents have the necessary support to access high-quality education opportunities as well as advocating for great opportunities for all Camden students, regardless of where they live, what school they choose to attend, or income status.
FRNJ: Tell us a little about yourself and how that played a factor in getting involved?
Shirley Irizarry: I am a product of the Camden City School System. My family moved here from Puerto Rico when I was child so I’ve lived here my whole life! While I was in elementary school, I felt very nurtured and encouraged by my teachers and administrators. I always made the honor roll and was considered at the top of my classes. However, as I entered middle school and later high school I began to realize that the education I received didn’t set me up for success in comparison to my peers. This affected my potential for growth and success, and set me back several years in terms of how long it would take me to achieve my goals as a professional. When I became a mother, and not having the resources to move to a neighborhood with higher performing schools, I knew I would have to do my best to supplement my children’s education if I was to ensure a fighting chance to be competitive and achieve their own educational success. I’ve even made it my mission to advocate for all those players I coach in the little league as well as my family members, neighbors, and friends.
FRNJ: How can the public, along with parents, get more involved in local education?
Shirley Irizarry: First and foremost, parents need to own the fact they are the experts when it comes to their children’s needs! They should then become familiar with their rights and responsibilities and well acquainted with school policies so they are able to speak from knowledge when seeking change. Also, parents should seek to establish parent groups within their students’ schools. Through Title I funding, parents are afforded the opportunity to meet, discuss issues and concerns among other parents and truly work in partnership with school leaders to ensure students are receiving the best curriculum, services, and resources possible. Parents should be actively involved at Board meetings and community meetings making sure their voices are heard! Parents should enlist the help of community members, business owners, elected officials, and leaders to collectively leverage their power and influence to affect change and policies.
FRNJ: How can PGCS’s work help and change Camden?
Shirley Irizarry: As we continue our efforts to ensure all Camden students receive a high-quality education, PGCS seeks to be viewed as representing parents across the entire city, regardless of school type. We support all high-quality schools: District, Renaissance, Charter, Vocational, and Parochial. Above all, we believe in school choice and respect parents’ decisions. Our job is to make sure they have access and information to make the best-informed choice.
We will actively seek and support the most disenfranchised and stand in the space for the voiceless. In doing so, we will actively seek to bridge gaps and find common ground in the best interest of families by taking a long-term, family-first view to our schools.
PGCS seeks to be recognized as a major player in the school system of the City of Camden. As such, we want to be recognized as the parent group that should be consulted on issues impacting our children’s education.
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