You could hear a painful gasp across the crowd. It was as if a room of 300 people had their hearts suddenly pulled from their chest.
Kelley Williams-Bolar was telling a story about her arrest and charge of grand larceny for enrolling her children in a school that wasn't in her residential district.
That's called residency fraud, or educational theft, and it's serious enough to be arrested and jailed. The fact that Kelley was criminalized for something so common - using a family member's address to secure a seat in a "good" school - was hard for this crowd of education reformers and attendees of the Foundation for Excellence in Education's annual conference, but there was more to her story.
I have known Kelley for a couple of years so I was prepared for what she would say next, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't hurt.
Fighting back tears, losing her breath, raising a hand to God for help, Kelley told the crowd that the authorities also arrested her elderly father because it was his address that Kelley used when enrolling her children.
Through her tears, she shared with the room, "He died in jail.”
That's how serious it is to "steal" a "public" education in the United States of America.
Kelley's story brought the audience to their feet with applause for her bravery in telling her agonizing truth. Her story was one of several on the panel I moderated, entitled “The Faces of Education Reform,” each story highlighting the struggle mothers have with educating their children in systems that often seem stacked against them.
A mother from North Carolina, Charlonda Brown, talked about her struggle with finding a school that would not saddle her special needs child with the low expectations so common in districts that serve populations of high-poverty students.
Cristina Maxwell, a mother, lawyer, and parent activist in Florida whose five-year-old son suffered a stroke was excluded from her state's scholarship program that covers learning disabilities like autism and downs syndrome, but not cancer-related learning disabilities like Christina’s son's. She continues to fight the Florida legislature to change its law and cover students who fall through the cracks depending on their disability.
The contrasts between Charlonda's and Crisitna's presumed social status were tied together by the similarity in their struggle to get the best for their children.
Having traveled the country to speak with parents about their schools, I marvel at how common special education issues are, and how alienating it is for parents who fight in isolation for every critical service or benefit their children need.
The dead ends they confront go mostly unnoticed by public school apologists and school reformers alike. In our scorching political battles for funding and test scores we forget about personalizing education resources so every child has the opportunity to thrive.
There was some hopeful notes to our panel, brought mostly by students Walter Blanks from Ohio and Brian Gilchrist from New Jersey.
Walter was once labeled a "bad kid" in a school that punished him so often it oppressed his spirit. He says he felt like he "wasn't worth very much."
He spoke eloquently about his blossoming from an often punished, closed off, depressed child, to a kid with hope, vision, and self-appreciation that makes anything seem possible.
Things changed when he qualified for a scholarship through Ohio's EdChoice program. That opened the doors to a private school and today he's a successful student at Mount Vernon Nazarene University majoring in journalism.
While he was talking I noticed a woman at table #9 who had her hands over her mouth and nose, just below her eyes that were filling with water. This was his mother, proud and full. Even from the stage I could feel the satisfaction of seeing her son, a kid who could have easily been a casualty to poor schooling, speak with excitement that was infectious for us all.
Like Walter, Briana was also a student who rose above tough circumstances, made it into Rutgers University, graduated with a degree in Planning and Public Policy, and returned to her home turf as a locked and loaded activist for school choice. In her case it was a charter school that she credits with her college success.
Briana's story was one of two where an innovative charter school had become a gateway to better days.
Theresa Canady, a mother of six from Gary, Indiana who found a charter school with a college-bound focus so effective that her daughters earned their Associates of Arts Degrees before graduating high school. Their success inspired her to enroll in colleges classes herself and now she's on track to graduate with a bachelor's degree along with her daughters.
The powerful tear-jerking stories these mothers and students told put the event and all of our work into a human context. They defied the stereotype of the low-information parent who isn't involved enough to expect education to work for their children. They put down the notion that school reform is a salvation plan only for poor and downtrodden parents who need saving.
Advocates can get lost in all the policy dramas to the point of forgetting that policy is about improving the lives of real people.
After Kelley had reduced us all to tears I asked for everyone in the crowd to raise their hand if they could commit to working hard so stories like hers would never happen again. All hands went up.
Yours should too.