• by Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • February 2012 •Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed.

IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework places governance efficacy as a school system fundamental. It also shows engaged citizens as a lever of change. The ARISE South Tower PTA Comunitario is a case in point on how IDRA’s Family Leadership in Education model works simultaneously and organically with several elements of the framework to support quality schools. Here are some examples of families taking leadership and using actionable data to improve their neighborhood public schools.

Community PTA Invites Superintendents to Supper

In the spring of 2011, the superintendent of a large school district was the main guest at a supper hosted by a community organization that is nestled in some of the poorest unincorporated communities (colonias) in South Texas. The menu was traditional Mexican home fare cooked in several members’ homes and served hot at a community center that was once a modest home. About 30 minutes into the meal, the superintendent was formally welcomed by the organizing committee. A team presented a brief history of ARISE – the sponsoring organization – followed by that of the PTA Comunitario, which is an ARISE/IDRA project resulting from the IDRA Family Leadership in Education work with these families for more than 10 years.

The superintendent responded with very positive comments highlighting some cutting-edge work done in the school district in dropout recovery and college preparation through a new college campus. The interactions and dialogue, all in Spanish, were about critical educational issues.

Closing remarks were made by the PTA president who acknowledged her growth as a leader through the support of the community and the training she and others experienced. She also respectfully reminded the superintendent that he is being taken at his word regarding school doors being open to the community. Some campuses have been less than friendly in welcoming this new form of PTA that is based in the community and whose leaders come from neighborhoods experiencing severe economic distress.

This same PTA Comunitario, six months later, held another supper for another superintendent, who attended with a school board member, another school staff member and their wives. The supper was again a collaborative and cooperative activity of various families. Several ARISE ladies made presentations similar to the previous supper. They added that it has been difficult to set up visits with administrators on the campuses where their children attend school.

The superintendent responded with warmth, saying that this visit reminded him of his growing up poor in a working class family and the sacrifices his parents made so that he could get a good education. He promised to bring all of his principals to meet with the community in their center. He had at first thought of bringing them all to his office but reconsidered. He wanted the principals to have the same experience he just had of being in the community. As of this writing, the principals will be visiting on a 2012 March morning, and the PTA Comunitario is planning a light breakfast with a team of parents to present to and interact with the administrators who will visit.

Community PTA Questions School Board Candidates

ARISE spans several school districts in South Texas, and its members and volunteer families are familiar with attending public meetings. One such meeting was with candidates who are running for the school board. One parent leader asked about the candidates’ position on a new bill that reintroduced three tracks for high school graduation. The parent’s concern was the danger of many students being placed in the new non-college preparation track. The candidates pled ignorance of the new statute and promised to study up on the new tracking and graduation requirement policies.

The parents were astounded to find that they knew more than the candidates about rules and regulations that had a critical impact on their children. This was a direct result of the training provided at the PTA Comunitario meetings on substantive issues being faced by schools. Because the PTA meetings were held in Spanish, were highly participatory and the content was presented in a problem-solving manner, these parents have a high level of understanding of complex policy issues.

Community PTA Reports on Effects of School Funding Cuts

A third example of community engagement and use of actionable knowledge came about because of a crisis in the funding of education. The state legislature for the first time in several generations cut education funding by billions of dollars when it had other options to avoid the cuts. IDRA launched the Fair Funding Now! initiative, and the ARISE PTA Comunitario was an early partner and participant. Several meetings were held, using bilingual materials.

One of the tools in the campaign is an online crowdmap where individuals can log in and actually report how the cuts have affected their schools. Most of the parents in this PTA Comunitario logged in at the community center because they don’t have computers and Internet access at home. The first 30 entries on the statewide crowdmap came from this group in South Texas. Here are examples: “Hubo recorte presupuestal en el departamento bilingue y perdimos 20 personas perdieron su trabajo. [There were budget cuts in the bilingual department, and 20 people lost their jobs.];” “Han habido recortes de maestros, transportacion, seguridad. Hay muchos estudiantes para cada maestro.” [There have been cuts in teachers, transportation, security. There are too many students for each teacher.]”

Family Engagement to Improve Education

These three examples illustrate several things. Parents can plan and carry out sophisticated events with a high level of interaction with school administrators and school board candidates. They can collect and document data about their schools and make direct connections between policy decisions made in the state capitol and what happens to their schools.

The content of the superintendent meetings was about critical issues in the education of children. Even though the events have been courteous, warm and polite, the parents were able to bring out critical issues affecting parent engagement and ultimately influencing the education of their children.

Their questioning and dialogue in public settings was informed and deliberate. Because all the families that have been participating in this leadership development process are used to engaging in critical conversations, have been analyzing and making sense of school data, deliberating about school policy, curriculum and graduation requirements, they can pose questions and engage in dialogue with educators. This is especially notable because these families are considered by many educators as not being very interested in the education of their children or as not being educated enough themselves to understand educational issues and challenges.

These families that are so vibrantly engaged in the education of their children are encouraging them to be in the college preparation track and to take dual credit and AP courses. The parents are vigilant of what courses their children are taking and their grades. A significant number of the ARISE staff children have gone on to college, some entering as sophomores because they’ve accumulated a year’s worth of college credits while still in high school. Some are pursuing a master’s degree while struggling to find the financial aid necessary, and others are teaching in the very schools they attended. These families are not yet English proficient and are working hard in low paying jobs, but their children are now on the road to become degreed professionals.

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., is a senior education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2012, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2012 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.]