The opportunities and challenges of working in the Texas border region for school reform can yield rich lessons for those seeking to encourage greater collaboration between schools and communities. This article shares some of the learnings from an IDRA project funded by the Edward W. Hazen Foundation that targeted the El Paso, Texas, region.
The goals of the project were to:
- Strengthen organizing capabilities of community-based organizations, families, parents and educators.
- Build and strengthen local grassroots leadership among community-based organizations and families to advocate for education reform.
- Support the creation of a local network of community-based organizations, families and educators.
- Engage families, educators and institutions in the change process and expand the local network to include statewide connections of grassroots advocacy organizations.
In accomplishing its goals, IDRA developed a bilingual toolkit of hands-on materials and techniques that were used by grassroots groups, families and individuals to organize for leadership and action for educational equity. Core teams of emerging leaders planned and implemented local conferences that included parents, community members and educators.
Each leadership team, in turn, created a network for advocacy and decision making based on unique needs of the local context and developed a plan of action with measurable results. Through debriefing and self-evaluation, teams conducted internal evaluations and made mid-course adjustments throughout the project.
Ultimately, the leadership teams formed a larger citywide body of advocates who meet at least once a month for broader decision making, action and support. The local network of organizations has presented at other networking events with advocates from other organizations. The materials and process emerging from the project are being disseminated around the state with similar goals.
Mobilizing Local Community Leaders
The project met its objective of creating and mobilizing a group of grassroots parents and leaders, and creating effective bilingual tools for other communities. The ideas and techniques within the toolkit help parent leaders become informed and create linkages for student success, organizing for leadership, and taking action on key educational topics. The toolkit also responds to No Child Left Behind by providing information about issues of educational equity and parent engagement.
Furthermore, adult leaders were prepared and made presentations locally, at the state level at the Texas Education Agency parent conference and elsewhere. Student leaders were trained. This group of emerging student leaders is now being mentored and supported by the more established leaders in this project.
Highlights of the accomplishments achieved through this project include the following.
Identified community leaders who assumed advocacy roles. Parents presented on the issue of fair funding and advocacy for excellent public schools in collaboration with schools, community-based organizations and other parents at the annual Texas Education Agency parent involvement conference held in El Paso. Their coordinated activities accentuated what so many families do not realize, that all parents have a voice locally and in state policy and can be effective advocates for equitable school funding.
Generated public will toward advocacy for education. Public school reform and community action were identified as essential to a well-functioning community by the community-based organizations involved in the project. Even as the project was nearing its end, the groups asserted their commitment to make education an issue that their respective organizations would continue to address.
Seeded greater collaborations and networks. Other community-based organizations became interested in working across the El Paso community in collaboration for educational excellence. Many other school districts requested information to develop parent leaders as advocates for excellent educational programs.
Expanded youth leadership development. A highly successful excursion with youth and community members on youth leadership for educational excellence gave the participating community-based organizations an opportunity to focus on creating goals in education working intergenerationally with local leaders. IDRA worked closely with two community-based organizations to address their local commitment to create a network of youth and families around education reform. The groups targeted students in high school. To kick off the summer activities, a weekend youth camp-out was held as an opening event to five weeks of follow-up youth and family activities.
While youth were the focus of the excursion, interactions with adults helped to create an environment of personal reflection, cross-generational communication and cooperation. One outcome of the weekend activity was a mutual commitment by parents and community members to work and mentor youth in their community. Meanwhile, the students stand eager to join with their peers and adults to create a reality for themselves in which they are valued and championed.
Identified multi-sector engagement emerging around key educational issues. Community stakeholders identified the issues of school holding power, access to higher education and fair funding of public education as important topics to pursue with stakeholders in their community. The local organizations engaged parents, students and other community members representing business and education sectors. During the final project year, IDRA support for some of the activities came through IDRA’s Parent Information and Resource Center, funded by the U.S. Department of Education.
Seeds of Change Sown Through the El Paso Project
This project built a strong legacy in the El Paso community.
- Capacity was built for local citizens to collect data regarding their community’s assets and needs.
- A process was initiated for cross-generational dialogue and action around key education issues.
- Key information and training was provided around equitable funding for public schools to the public at large, leaving access to current information about funding available to citizens through the Texans for Fair Funding web site.
- Local citizens created a forum for dialogue and action involving local and state elected officials and the media to address funding equity in El Paso public schools.
- Parents and community members were empowered and connected to meet with key statewide networks and to take effective action.
- Local skills and resources of families were valued and leveraged on behalf of their children’s education through the IDRA valued parent leadership model.
- A vision of engagement and action was begun in education reform as part of the local agenda for community-based organizations serving a variety of needs.
- Educational access and excellence were seen as an attainable goal that is essential to democracy and the overall health of the community.
Guidelines Creating Positive Impact at the Local Level
Based on the lessons learned and challenges faced by this project, following are key guidelines for creating positive impact at the local level in working with families and communities.
Greater collaboration at key junctures in the educational pipeline is needed from preschool through college. Parents have the innate desire for a better and brighter future for their children, but higher education is not always seen as accessible or within reach. Far too often, families do not have access to the information needed to consider the path to college as a realistic possibility for their children. It is imperative that schools, communities and colleges work together to overcome the challenges in connecting K-12 with higher education for a more seamless pipeline approach to educational reform.
Networking requires building trust and a common, shared vision among partners over time. When working with community groups, there may be reluctance to collaborate due to histories, competitive or “scarcity vs. abundance” thinking or sense of “territoriality.” When funds in the community are scarce, there is an impulse to think of individual sustainability over the long term, shared goals and shared accountability for the future.
Effective use of technology and training can accelerate the reform effort at the grassroots level. The gap in technology know-how as well as in access can create barriers for growth and slow down effective communication among grassroots groups.
Reform efforts must include development of existing and emerging leadership. Lack of broader, shared leadership inhibits movement forward when emerging leaders are not in place. Plans need to be in place for local leaders to have opportunities for growth while at the same time nurturing youth and other emerging leaders. Often cross-generational and cross-sector leadership development can help identify an important cadre of leaders for current and future efforts.
Funders need to invest in training and personnel that will yield long-term results in high-need areas. Community-based organizations respond to training and support that provides staff time for work on education reform issues. While more established organizations may be involved in local issues ranging from health, economic development, housing, or water quality, all stakeholders can acknowledge the pivotal role of an excellent and equitable education to the long-term sustainability and success of any community. Other immediate needs may require more time for coordination to address longer-term education needs.
Funders need information about local area needs; investments need to be longer term for greater sustainability. Additional funding is needed for community-based organizations due to shrinking resources, lay-offs, competing priorities and lack of economic resources. Most organizations have very small staffs working in high-poverty, high-need areas with few resources to maintain a steady staff size and long-term efforts. In order to avoid hampering the continuity of parent-school-community participation, any reform effort needs a longer-term rather than shorter-term view for strategic planning and resulting action to effectively take place. Investment in education will have positive economic impact for local communities.
Lessons Learned in the Project
Below are several lessons learned from or highlighted by this project.
- In building readiness for change, timing is essential in nurturing a cadre of leaders.
- A sense of urgency promotes a shared vision, action and shared accountability among leaders.
- There is readiness on the part of local communities to engage in education issues. This must be coupled with sufficient resources over time and with dedicated local leadership.
- Families living in under-resourced areas are more apt to take on education issues when given sufficient support, opportunities to engage with diverse audiences and basic infrastructure to do so.
- Parents feel valued most when they can act as leaders and take effective action in mobilizing other parents and community members around specific issues that they have identified within the local context.
- Research can be conducted effectively by local citizens of diverse backgrounds.
- Information can be collected, analyzed and shared by local groups. This information can lead to specific action when linked to local needs and tied to specific goals.
- Cross-generation learning enhances local efforts to create positive change in educational access and quality.
- Learning that integrates information across disciplines gives more information and power to local citizens, such as information in health coupled with information about education. For example, a healthy community and excellence in education go hand-in-hand.
Contributing Factors for Success
IDRA’s 32-year history working with community-based organizations is noted for its cross-generational, multicultural and collaborative design. In this project, three elements were combined for success and were reinforced as contributing factors for successful work in local communities.
The first is cross-generational work. Elder leaders working side-by-side with emerging leaders helps to create a more sustainable effort that builds from the lessons learned in the past and focuses on local issues while building capacity for the future in new leaders.
Second is a multicultural approach. Training and materials that are bilingual, culturally relevant and presented within the local context are most effective. This helps build trust and adds both to the richness of the discussions and to the success of the work. Issues such as the importance of history, language and culture in creating social change emerge and are strengthened through diverse groups working together for the greater good.
Finally, there is local collaboration. With a trust in the power of their collective action, parents and community members enthusiastically sought out opportunities to come together as a team with the goal of enriching their community and planting seeds that will grow in the future. Hopefully, their harvest will be a better future for their children through equity and access to excellent education programs.
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Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., is director of the IDRA Division of Community and Public Engagement. Anna Alicia Romero is an education assistant in the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2012 Note: The Texans for Fair Funding website has been integrated with IDRA’s Education Policy website.
[©2005, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November- December 2005 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.]