• By Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., and Frances M. Guzmán, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2007

Frances GuzmanRosana RodriguezResearch has documented parent involvement as a critical component of ensuring students’ school success. And it is generally understood that parents are powerful first teachers of children through informal learning that takes place in the home and community. For more than 30 years, IDRA has promoted a community engagement model that values parents and encourages their important role as partners in education.

Yet many attempts to strengthen home-school connections often represent a one-size-fits-all approach. They do not recognize, value and build upon children’s unique assets represented by culture, home language and familial contextual roots. Schools and well-intentioned educators may seek to encourage parent engagement, but they often limit parents’ involvement to a peripheral role rather than a meaningful one. They shortchange a process for shared decision-making to promote positive learning outcomes and preparation for college access and success. This is especially true for educators in under-resourced schools that serve minority children or English language learners, where parents want to engage with schools but may be intimidated, misinformed or lack skills and information about how to do so.

IDRA’s model challenges schools to become more parent-friendly and invitating to community members to be full partners in decision-making. In serving a multicultural student body, schools need to honor multi-generational leaders and the wisdom they bring to teaching and learning.

They must create a culture of engagement in order to improve effectiveness of school systems. This requires a paradigm shift that values the diversity and wisdom that families and communities bring to the shared goal of educating children.

Quality multicultural materials are needed to build capacity for educators to partner effectively with parents. New tools are needed to help schools assess their progress toward building more effective engagement with parents and communities as together they build more responsive and supportive relationships to improve teaching and learning for all children.

Schools can create partnerships with key community-based organizations that serve youth and families to create a web of support for every student from preschool through higher education. Cross-cultural collaboration is fostered by schools that create a climate for effective parent engagement, ultimately building a better future for communities and for the greater good of the country.

Engaging Families

In San Antonio, IDRA is implementing effective tools and creating a web of support through its Family Leaders Engaged in Children’s Academic Success (FLEChAS) project, funded in part through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. This southwest region of the city has been demographically what others in the nation are becoming. It is precisely within these communities where much can be learned. They are valuable resources for cross-generational and multicultural approaches as keys to bridging races, languages, cultures and traditions to support student success, address the disparate dropout rates of minority students and encourage college enrollment.

Components of the FLEChAS project include: (1) IDRA’s model for parent engagement and its “parents as leaders” curriculum for leadership development; (2) capacity-building tools and training for school personnel in engaging meaningfully with parents and assessing their involvement with parents as partners; and (3) institutes to build leadership skills for students and community-based organizations.

Student Voices

Listening to students is a critical part of engagement that helps develop a growing base of support for emerging leaders, provide skills for positive interaction, and create new networks of intergenerational leaders who can work together in supportive ways across races and cultures. Too often, strategies for community engagement overlook the element of “student voice.”

As adults, we all share in the responsibility of supporting young people’s success in school. Therefore, it is essential for us to understand what constitutes effective engagement from a student perspective. From students’ voices and through their eyes, we can learn much more about barriers that impede access for minority youth to quality schooling and completion of a college degree. We can then take collective action to support their success more fully.

In addition to FLEChAS, IDRA is incorporating student voices as a critical component for engagement in several initiatives. As part of a cross-race, cross-sector leadership development initiative, Fulfilling the Promise of Mendez and Brown, IDRA held community dialogues aimed at strengthening public education recently in New Mexico and Arkansas.

In Albuquerque, students were asked to take photographs and give commentary about their school experiences in the context of these landmark cases. Their powerful images and words were shared with the local community in a gallery setting before the action-focused dialogues took place. In Little Rock, high school student groups created oral reports about their experiences that they shared with community members, educators and leaders from state and local levels. In both cases, students’ powerful insights and recommendations became pivotal in the planning by local leaders for action that is forthcoming.

For one group of students in IDRA’s internationally-acclaimed Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, a leadership day activity involved the use of IDRA’s video discussion guide, In Our Voices. The video features student musicians who tell the stories of young people reflecting on important issues as they move from high school to college and into civic engagement as leaders in their communities. Their stories, reflected in vignettes, are based upon composite life experiences of Latino students. Questions are posed for reflection that can be helpful to group discussions among educators, parents, students and community members in their planning. Copies of the scripts and musical lyrics are available for use in schools and communities.

And IDRA’s Youth Tekkies are helping their parents and other adults understand technology and navigate online to access important information about their schools through community-based organizations.

Being Vigilant

Through engagement of different voices – educators, students, parents, business leaders and community members of all races and sectors – greater understanding and shared vision can be reached. Together, schools and their communities can weave a fabric of effective action that results in academic success at all levels for young people and improve quality of life for our communities and for our nation.

It is precisely through the diversity of perspectives and integration of efforts at the local level that community engagement can result in more effective networks. Such engagement helps students and their families successfully navigate education systems and eases transitions from early childhood to kindergarten, through middle grades, and from high school to college.

We must be ever vigilant that our engagement efforts go both deeply and broadly enough to meet parents, families and students within their communities. We must work more purposefully toward maintaining a valuing, asset-based approach that is highly relational and designed to provide personal, targeted support for each student and family. In this way, we will help our public schools be more relevant and more responsive to the needs of our communities, more inviting and vigorous centers of learning and teaching, and more reflective of our inter-connectedness as a people.

Sample IDRA Publications on Community Engagement

A Community Action Guide – Seven Actions to Fulfill the Promise of Brown and Mendez
By R.G. Rodríguez, B. Scott, and A. Villarreal, IDRA (2005)?

Promoting Student Leadership on Campus: A Guide for Creating a Culture of Engagement
By R.G. Rodríguez, A. Villarreal, and J.D. Cortez, IDRA (2002)?

Improving Educational Impact through Family Engagement
By R.G. Rodríguez, A. Villarreal, A.M. Montemayor and J.D. Cortez, IDRA (2002)

Family and Community Engagement Survey
By R.G. Rodríguez, A. Villarreal, and J.D. Cortez, IDRA (2002)

Community Engagement Review and Planning Guide
By R.G. Rodríguez, P. McCollum, and A. Villarreal, IDRA (2002)

Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., is IDRA director of development. Frances M. Guzmán, M.A., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2007, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2007 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.]