• by Laurie Posner, MPA • IDRA Newsletter • June – July 2013 •

Charting the Course

Laurie PosnerWhen you walk into the offices of Southern Echo in Jackson, Mississippi, one of the first things you notice is the maps. Southern Echo is a non-profit that organizes grassroots African American leadership in Mississippi to secure a justly-funded, high quality public education for all children. A grantee of the Marguerite Casey Foundation (as is IDRA), Southern Echo works to assure that families have a voice in shaping the public policies that impact them.

Echo’s maps (http://southernecho.org) plot school funding levels and the results of Mississippi’s Quality Distribution Index, giving families and educators contextualized data on education quality and equity. Accountability is central for Echo, not defined narrowly as high-stakes testing but as “putting community interest over self-interest.” It is built on “transparency, respectfulness, active listening and sound reasoning.”

Data maps are a commanding method and metaphor. They don’t just say: Here is the territory and these are the outcomes. They say: This is our home, our school and, collectively, we care about what happens to everyone here. Through organizing and data, Southern Echo and its partners are changing the terms of the home-school-community relationship. It is the kind of change that is long overdue.

Families Matter

If ever there was a real question about whether families matter in improving educational outcomes, it has long since been settled. More than a decade of research shows what Southern Echo organizers have always known: the vast majority of families of all cultural and economic backgrounds care about their children’s education and hold high aspirations for their children’s futures (Boethel, 2003; Torres & Márquez, 2005;Pew Hispanic Center/Kaiser Family Foundation, 2004; Caspe, et al., 2006-2007), and there is a clear and strong association between family involvement and academic improvement (Dearing, et al., 2006; Henderson & Mapp, 2002). A recent longitudinal study of 400 Chicago schools underscored the conclusion, finding that strong parent-community-school ties are “essential ingredients” to school turnaround success (Bryk, 2010).

But many models, whether framed as engaging or involving families, fall short: They neither engage nor transform. In some cases, the problem inheres in the approach. Where family engagement is conceived as a rescue mission or an add-on program – or where families are considered passive partners – engagement may not just fail but exacerbate the very problem it purports to solve.

New models are needed that knit together families, schools and communities around shared concerns for children and joint leadership; build long-term trust; and bring clarity, analyses and sound information to bear on critical questions of how to improve education (Robledo Montecel, & Goodman, 2010; Montemayor, 2013).

This is particularly true where communities have been torn up by the twin histories of inequity and racism. Elena Lopez notes: “Although standard parent involvement practices…are linked to students’ positive academic and behavioral outcomes…they are oftentimes insufficient to boost the achievement of low-income children in troubled schools.” She goes on to say: “Community organizing intentionally builds parent power – it equips parents…to leverage a more even playing field when it comes to tackling educational issues and shaping solutions.” And peer (family-to-family) organizing can bring to bear “significant grassroots power, sophisticated solutions to polarized policy options and long-term dedicated attention that holds public servants accountable” (Sanchez & White, 2011).

Recognizing the value of community organizing, Lopez and other researchers are delving into questions about how grassroots community-based organizations and organizing strategies forge the kinds of school-home-community bonds that impact education policy and practice. From Boston, Chicago, Oakland, Philadelphia, Miami, to Los Angeles, San Antonio, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, new models – like those taken up by Southern Echo in Jackson – are springing up across the map.

From Involvement to Informed Collective Action

The Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Chicago (also a Marguerite Casey Foundation grantee and Equal Voice member) found that federal policies to promote the privatization of public schools were having a “disparate negative impact on communities of color.” “What were initiated as laboratories of innovation,” KOCO found “have devolved into cash machines for private interests.” Following more in-depth analyses, KOCO collaborated with family leaders in 18 U.S. cities to file civil rights complaints. The partners mobilized more than a thousand people to Washington, D.C., and have launched a network of low-income, working families to advocate for high quality public schools (Malone, 2013).

Analyzing public education in Boston, the Boston-area Youth Project (BYOP), has mobilized for appropriate state education funding levels, more guidance counselors and increased federal funding for education. BYOP, which focuses on increasing youth power for positive social change, convenes citywide meetings, summer institutes and retreats around key information youth leaders need to strengthen education (Renée & McAlister, 2011).

In the Lower Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, community leaders who are part of Equal Voice – Rio Grande Valley are using IDRA’s bilingual (Spanish/English) OurSchool portal to identify needs and gaps in graduation rates and increase college readiness. At ¡Ya Es Tiempo!, convened in 2010 by IDRA and its EV-RGV partners in collaboration with Gus Guerra Elementary at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, 140 parents, community leaders, students, educators, public officials and policymakers gathered for a day of listening, dialogue and data. Since then, IDRA and EV-RGV organizations have gathered youth, family and school leaders in community centers, backyards, school libraries and boardrooms to leverage data for planning and community-family-school conversations on improving education for children across the Valley. (See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbFh4m3-Wcg)

Our School-ness

When effective, community organizing in education succeeds, it is not – as some suggest – because CBOs are connected to low-income families and “get them to show up” at more school functions, but because these efforts fundamentally re-imagine and recast the terms of the home-school-community relationship. They bank on what is always, already true: neighborhood schools belong to the communities they serve (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010), building the “relational culture and shared leadership necessary for parents and students to engage as full partners in school decision making” (Annenberg Institute, 2012). They value a shared concern for what is best for children over turf, are grounded in analyses and actionable data, and reclaim the whole notion of accountability as a commitment – not to high-stakes tests – but to trust, transparency and mutual respect.

IDRA also is a grantee of the Marguerite Casey Foundation, providing capacity-building support and technical assistance to foundation grantees in the Texas Rio Grande Valley; partnering on education-related initiatives; and conducting a network assessment, which has included site visits and interviews with Southern Echo.


Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Getting Started in Education Organizing: Resources and Strategies (Providence, R.I.: Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, 2012).

Boethel, M. Diversity: School, Family and Community Connections, Annual Synthesis 2003 (Austin, Texas: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 2003).

Bryk, A.S. “Organizing Schools for Improvement,” Phi Delta Kappan (April 2010) Vol. 91, No. 7, pp. 23-30.

Caspe, M., & M.E. Lopez, C. Wolos. Family Involvement in Elementary School Children’s Education (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Family Research Project, winter 2006-2007).

Dearing, E., & H. Kreider, S. Simpkins, H.B. Weiss. “Family Involvement in School and Low-Income Children’s Literacy Performance: Longitudinal Associations Between and Within Families,” Journal of Educational Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2006) 98, 653-664.

Henderson, A.T., & K.L. Mapp. A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement (Austin, Texas: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 2002).

Hong, S. A Cord of Three Strands: A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press, 2011).

Malone, J.B. “Save Our Communities and Children From Charter Schools,” Equal Voice for America’s Families (Seattle, Wash.: Marguerite Casey Foundation, February 26, 2013).

Montemayor, A.M. “PTA Comunitario as a Family Leadership Model – An ‘Investing in Innovation I3 Project,’” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 2103).

Pew Hispanic Center/Kaiser Family Foundation. National Survey of Latinos: Education (Washington, D.C.: Pew Hispanic Center, 2004).

Renée, M., & S. McAlister. The Strengths and Challenges of Community Organizing as an Education Reform Strategy: What the Research Says. Community Organizing as an Education Reform Strategy Series. Prepared by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University (Quincy, Mass.: Nellie Mae Education Foundation, 2011).

Robledo Montecel, M., & C. Goodman. Courage to Connect: A Quality Schools Action Framework™ (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).

Sanchez, A., & R. White. “Parent Organizing as a Strategy for Sustainable Policy Change,” Making the Link (September 2011).

Torres, C. & A. Márquez. Reaching Higher Ground: Parental Outreach Programs at the Postsecondary Level (Los Angeles, Calif.: The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, 2005).

Laurie Posner, MPA, is a senior education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at feedback@idra.org.

[©2013, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June – July 2013 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.]