by Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2016

As our neighborhood public schools in the poorest areas of the country face the challenges of staying open, an opportunity to transform presents itself: Family leadership in education flowing from community-based organizations. Even though the traditional notion is still the norm where, at best, families are seen solely as volunteers and fundraisers, there are clear signs that families organized through community organizations are engines of change for the better.

Even among those who are from the community surrounding the school, it is not uncommon for school personnel to have inherited deficit views of the community. Coupled with scarce information taught about the value of authentic family engagement in educator preparation programs, the net result is ongoing prejudice against poor, minority, recent immigrant and English learning families. This bias is a barrier to authentic family engagement, but it is not insurmountable.

In the IDRA Quality Schools Action Framework, we define community involvement as the “creation of a partnership based on respect and the shared goals of academic success and integration of the community into decision-elements:

  • The community has an interest in becoming an integral part of the education community of the school.
  • The community takes a pro-active role in ensuring that all students receive a quality education.
  • The school actively promotes the involvement of the community in school activities and decisions.
  • The school perceives community involvement as an essential partner in its campaign to teach all students.

IDRA’s Family Leadership in Education model has evolved since the early 1980s and is embodied in the emergence of Comunitarios that today are present in several communities. The juncture of a school district that is transforming itself and that views the community and its children as assets and college material, is a community-based organization that is strongly supporting family leadership in education with an intermediary organization that provides information and training about critical educational issues. This meaningful work paints a picture of how collaborations can be transformative and beneficial to all.

Read: Our Mesa Comunitaria – One Year Later

Community-Based Family Engagement that Benefits Schools

IDRA and a community-based organization, ARISE, formed the first Comunitario in the spring of 2009. Soon, other organizations in the Rio Grande Valley – Equal Voice Network got word of this innovation. They started organizing meetings specifically to have the new Comunitario leaders tell the story of why they came together this way, what their goals are and what activities they are taking on.

Since then, the U.S. Department of Education supported IDRA through the Investing in Innovation (i3) initiative to expand and research our Comunitario model. Eight more groups have formed in five communities in South Texas. IDRA’s i3 project has three major goals: form new Comunitarios, connect with schools, and conduct family leadership in education projects.

The Comunitarios have worked diligently to create group projects ranging from introductory school visitations to holding open hearings with school board candidates, and hosting large public events protesting huge cuts to the state education budget. None of the projects have been about local fundraising.

IDRA’s Comunitario approach is designed to ensure that groups:

  • Emerge from actionable data and related issues of concern to the families,
  • Create opportunities for each individual to practice varied leadership roles,
  • Are SMART:  Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely,
  • Support rotating leadership and super teams (rather than a super parents), and
  • Generate collective leadership by supporting all participants to engage in some aspect of taking action, carrying out planned activities, learning to work in teams and getting things done.

Education Projects by Family Groups Support their Schools’ Mission

Last year, the spread of family leadership in education projects was overwhelmingly related to graduation requirements and ensuring that all students are being prepared for college. Working together with the RGV Equal Voice Network education working group, parents surveyed other parents about the information they had on graduation requirements and whether their children in secondary schools were on a college track.

IDRA analyzed the survey results and helped publish and disseminate them (2015). The central finding was that most families were unfamiliar with the new graduation requirements and were unsure of which path their children had been placed in – although all wanted a college-preparation path. Local school leaders were surprised and grateful to learn which of their district’s communication efforts had been effective and which were not.

The parents decided to lead a collective event on the issue. The groups came together to host an area-wide Mesa Comunitaria, bringing together families from three counties and representing more than 15 school districts (Bahena, 2015). Superintendents and other school staff were among the participants to listen and dialogue in powerful new ways.

In addition, RGV La Raiz Comunitario members made presentations about graduation requirements to families in the parent participation rooms at several schools. The families are in semi-rural areas and have limited access to such information, so the presentations by their peers gave them very valuable information as well as modeling the kind of leadership that they could take on themselves.

The ARISE Comunitarios decided to approach the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district administration to plan a district-wide event to inform families about such topics as dual college credit, the biliteracy programs and other benefits that would prepare students for college. The session was planned and led by a coordinating committee that included a school administrator, an ARISE representative and IDRA staff.

Several planning and practice sessions were held and school administrators supported all phases of the process. The master of ceremonies, presenters and facilitators were students and parents. Both the schools and the Comunitarios promoted the event. On a busy Saturday, more than 120 participants attended. It was a showcase partnership that illustrated the faith and trust given to the community by the school district and the power of students and families being the presenters.

As a result, the participants were armed with information and plans of action that would affect the hundreds of families they represent and are in contact with. Many are carrying out very authentic family outreach and were equipped with new information. The modeling of leadership by parents and students emboldened many participants to take on similar activities in spreading the word about the benefits of the ideas presented and modeled at the session.

As stated in the IDRA Quality Schools Action Framework, these communities have demonstrated their passion for quality education and have shown how they can take a pro-active role in ensuring that all students receive a quality education. The schools promoted the community involvement and now see the community as an essential partner. It was an excellent, replicable example of co-leading and co-transforming schools by school administrators and community organization leaders.

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., is a IDRA senior education associate. Comments and questions may be sent to him via email at

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2016 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]