• by Hector Bojorquez and Aurelio M. Montemayor, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2014 • Hector BojorquezAurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed.

On January 25 of this year, community members from across the Texas Rio Grande Valley gathered to discuss educational issues in their schools. Lourdes Flores, president of ARISE, stated in no uncertain terms: “All of us want all our children to be ready for college. Anything else is unacceptable.” This was in response to the growing concern many families are expressing about how Texas is in the process of lowering expectations for students. The statement was followed by thunderous applause in a room full of parents, educators and university administrators. To community leaders like Ms. Flores, the current dumbing down of core curricula and reviving of vocational education by the Texas Legislature and State Board of Education is yet another attempt to dismantle equity in an already inequitable system.

Through House Bill 5 passed in 2013, students will no longer be required to take higher level math classes, such as Algebra II. And incoming high school students will be asked to choose an “endorsement path,” which focuses certain courses in areas of interest or potential career fields. Within each endorsement, students can end up either on a vocational track or a college track.

This was not the case in the recent past when the state required students to take at least four high school math and science classes with the goal of having all students graduate college ready. But the Texas Legislature has now watered down graduation requirements and brought back a system that, by design, reduces the number of students getting a high quality education and being prepared for college.

Throughout the last 15 years, IDRA has worked with community-based organizations in south Texas, providing educational information and policy updates. This work has culminated in the formation of community-based PTAs, PTA Comunitarios, that are presided over by members of south Texas grassroots organizations. Now, as IDRA and the Rio Grande Valley community move forward in collaborating with school districts, community organizations and colleges, a new effort is taking shape, called Mesa Comunitaria Educativa. This initiative is bringing together educational stakeholders from across the Texas Rio Grande Valley to collaborate on community concerns surrounding education. Currently, the community is concerned with the planned implementation of HB5, which is poised to gravely impact the quality of Texas’ secondary curriculum.

Our families and communities are protesting the weakening of curricula. They have been part of decisions and projects and, with their first-hand accounts of positive change, have become vocal advocates. Families are powerful allies in preventing HB5 from doing permanent damage to educational equity in our state. They must be engaged with dignity and integrity as has been the case among the PTA Comunitarios. This is what the Mesa Comunitaria Educativa is designed to accomplish.

Representatives of community-based organizations have come together in the Mesa Comunitaria Educativa and focused on two educational issues: the effect of the new legislation on quality curricula and equitable funding for all schools.

The next step took place on January 25 at the South Texas College Cooper Center where district personnel, college administrators and community members met to discuss the assets, challenges and possible solutions facing the lower Rio Grande Valley. This sort of education community board serves as a model for other communities as they monitor funding equity and curriculum quality in their schools.

The process at this meeting was to first examine educational data for the region, followed by break-out sessions designed to have school district staff, higher education administrators and community members look at the assets the Rio Grande Valley has to offer. These assets cover a wide spectrum: one of the nation’s most innovative districts, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, and its efforts to become an early college school district; higher education’s collaborative spirit with the community; and several PTA Comunitarios engaging parents as part of the solution rather than the problem. After reviewing assets, groups brainstormed possible collaborations and set goals.

Seventy community members attended the Mesa Comunitaria Educativa. Among them were members of the RGV’s Equal Voice Network; the president of the University of Texas at Pan American, Dr. Robert Nelsen; and district personnel from the PSJA and La Joya school districts. The discussions were rich, and a summary of the outcomes and next steps is forthcoming. Community-based organizations, like ARISE and LUPE, shared the extent of community outreach in the Valley, which comprises close to 30,000 families.

However, the main concern of all participants was the obvious negative consequences of HB5. Participants of Mesa Comunitaria Educativa know that the policy brings back vocational education and lowers graduation requirements for students. The measure and its proponents hold steadfast to their belief that schools do not need to prepare everyone for college.

But Lourdes Flores emphasized: “We expect all our children to be prepared for college. All of them. We have not struggled this hard for our children to have less than that.”

As a result, the Mesa Comunitaria Educativa drew up plans to collaborate with local school districts and colleges to inform the community about the implications of the new policy. The plans include forming monitoring committees with school districts, collaborating with colleges to disseminate information about opportunities, and pressing school districts to maintain the highest rigor and expectations for all students, not just the top 10 percent of students. This kind of community involvement and collaboration will hold schools accountable.

If nothing like this is happening in your community, there are concrete steps to becoming an engaged citizen. Take up the call. Analyze your high school’s data via IDRA’s Our School Portal (for Texas), form your own parent organization, hold your own Mesa Comunitaria Educativa, engage your school and district by asking about scores and college-going rates at school board meetings. It is your right and responsibility. Ask your school, “Why aren’t more students going to college from our schools?” Ask to monitor the number of students who are graduating college ready. Form committees to monitor all success data. Advocate and be engaged. Ask to collaborate with schools, ask to see more data if you think it necessary. Form your own PTA Comunitario, as many are doing in South Texas (IDRA can help). Like them, hold school boards and superintendents to high standards for all children. At a time when the nation seems ready to give up on our students, hold the system accountable. Repeat the phrase from our south Texas parents: “All of our children are college material.”

Hector Bojorquez is an education associate in IDRA Field Services. Aurelio M. Montemayor, Ed.D., is an IDRA senior education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to them via email at feedback@idra.org.

[©2014, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2014 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.]