• by Anna Alicia Romero • IDRA Newsletter • June – July 2000 • Anna Alicia Romero

Over a decade of national conversations about education reform have led to a variety of approaches to teaching, school management, reallocation of resources, and other issues regarding education. In some instances, the sense of urgency for education reform and the haste to see rapid results have led to reactionary ideas that, in the long run, will only exacerbate inequities in our public schools.

California’s Proposition 227, also known as the Unz Initiative, is one such idea. Based on anecdotal stories and an anti-immigrant agenda and fueled by the corporate dollars of a few people (especially from people living in other states), the proposition fed on that impatience. This proposition effectively eliminates bilingual education and attempts to require all children to learn English in their first year of school. It was passed in June of 1998, largely based on misinformation about the effectiveness and appropriateness of good bilingual education programs and the students they serve.

Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, IDRA executive director, made the following statement in response:

It makes sense to teach children in a language they understand. It also makes sense to teach them English. Volumes of data have documented that a well-designed, well-implemented bilingual education program is the most effective way to teach English to children who speak another language while also teaching core subjects like math, social studies and science (1998).

Still, many students in California are not being taught in a language they understand. And the threat to appropriate bilingual services through the initiative and referendum process may not be contained to California. Similar measures in Arizona and Colorado may be placed on statewide ballots this fall.

In analyzing the U.S. system of public education and the role of equity, IDRA founder and director emeritus Dr. José A. Cárdenas referred to the public school system as being incompatible with the minority students it serves:

The dismal failure of American schools in the education of minority groups can be attributed to the incompatibilities that exist between the characteristics of the target minority population and the characteristics of an instructional program developed for a White, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking, middle-class oriented population. Incompatibilities exist in economic level, mobility, and societal perceptions, but perhaps the most glaring incompatibilities exist in the areas of culture, including language (1995).

Taken a step further, one can plainly see how Cárdenas’ assertion is true in parents’ access to the traditional system of education and how that system views the rights of minority parents to have a voice in their children’s education.

The best way for us to arrive at constructive solutions where all children will benefit is through collective action. Dr. Robledo Montecel continued, “[Proposition 227] is a wake up call for minority parents, educators and concerned citizens to assert themselves, be pro-active and make schools more accountable for the appropriate education of all children” (1998).

The mobilization of an informed parent network advocating excellent bilingual programs in our public schools will be key to ensuring that equity in our schools is championed and preserved. During the past five years, the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) has focused attention to nurturing parent leadership, especially with language-minority families and those who are economically-disadvantaged. The basic tenet of our work with children and families is that all are valuable, none is expendable.

The model of working with parents to plan parent conferences has served as a laboratory for leadership and has given us the opportunity to connect with parents throughout San Antonio’s 14 school districts and from around Texas (see “Valued Parent Leadership”). Often addressing equity issues such as access to quality bilingual programs, these education conferences have also led to the creation of a network of parent leaders.

The seed for a national network of parents to advocate quality bilingual programs was planted at the annual conference of the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) in 1999 (Montemayor, 1999). We moved forward in strengthening the concept of a parent coalition for bilingual education at the NABE conference in 2000.

NABE 2000 Parent Institute

The NABE 2000 conference involved more than 8,000 bilingual educators, researchers and advocates. Running concurrently with the general conference, was a parent institute. Parents from the San Antonio area representing six school districts helped organize the event. From beginning to end, parents had a hand in preparing and executing the institute.

More than 150 parents and educators attended the two-day institute. They came from Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin. Each participant received a packet of information that contained useful articles on bilingual education, dual language programs and parent leadership in education and information on the formation of a parent advocacy group, Parent Coalition for Bilingual Education.

There were three objectives for the institute:

  • Model parent leadership in education.
  • Learn more about leadership and bilingual education.
  • Dialogue with parents and community members seeking solutions to educational and social problems.

The framework for the institute was to have general presentations of no longer than 30 minutes each followed by small group dialogues facilitated by parents. Activities included the following:

  • A presentation on the importance of quality dual language and bilingual programs and validating the home language,
  • A panel of parents discussing the role of parents in identifying quality bilingual programs, becoming part of the classroom, and becoming advocates and community organizers for quality bilingual programs,
  • The economic impact of a bilingual workforce,
  • A panel of four teenagers, and
  • A presentation on advocacy of bilingual education.

Each group had its own recorder and a person appointed who shared a summary of the discussion with the larger group.

Modeling Parent Leadership

Participants observed parents taking on various leadership roles, such as the master of ceremonies, facilitators, presenters, and organizers. Both days were facilitated by family stakeholders in education who were also involved in the overall planning of the institute. On the first day, two mothers from San Antonio facilitated the majority of the activities, and the final portion of the day was facilitated by two IDRA parent liaisons who have children in public schools. The second day was facilitated by a grandmother of children in public school and a father of school-age children.

A clear example of parents modeling leadership was the panel of parents who spoke on the various forms of parent leadership. One parent spoke about parents being resources to the school and identifying effective bilingual programs. Another panelist spoke about the rights of parents to participate in the public school system. The final panelist described her advocacy of quality dual language programs in her child’s elementary school. She described her collaboration with the school district and other parents in her district to extend the dual language program to the middle school level.

Facilitators modeled an important leadership skill: listening. They were trained to ask key questions and move the discussion along without making judgements on the opinions being expressed and by treating the group with respect.

Every general presentation at the institute addressed the importance of being bilingual, and even multilingual, from a variety of perspectives. Some participants spoke of bilingualism from the standpoint of cultural pride and awareness. Others saw bilingualism as a necessity for the increasingly global workforce. One speaker addressed the issue of equity in our public schools and the need to value all students and their families, regardless of their home language or English proficiency.

Parents and Community Members Seeking Solutions through Dialogue

After each general presentation, parents were randomly placed in small groups where they focused on three questions:

  • What points made by the speaker were most interesting or important to you?
  • ¿Cuales puntos hechos por la conferencista fueron los mas interesantes o importantes para usted?
  • What did you learn?
  • ¿Que aprendió?
  • What action should we take as a result of these ideas?
  • ¿Que acción se debe de tomar como resultado de estas ideas?

The dialogue among participants is very important for several reasons. It allows them to process the information they received, and it gives parents a forum they seldom have to voice their opinions about bilingual education and leadership among their peers and educators, especially when an environment of safety has been created by the facilitator and the group. The dialogue allows educators to listen to parents’ points of view and vice versa. It also allows parents an opportunity to organize like-minded individuals in the group to take action.

During the event, one person in each small group was selected to take notes, and another individual was chosen to give the group report to the larger audience. Public speaking is a difficult skill for many people to acquire. So having parents act as group reporters allowed them, especially the quiet ones, to experience presenting before a large group with the hope that it becomes a less intimidating activity each time.

Each day culminated with a plan of action that came from the different small groups. To make the transition to taking action for quality bilingual programs, participants were asked to reflect on their connections at the community, state and national levels; to explain how they were going to mobilize people for excellent bilingual programs; and to set a goal date for these actions to occur.

The NABE 2000 parent institute provided a forum where parents could speak to one another about their concerns with bilingual programs and their vision of children’s future with bilingual programs. It was a chance for educators to listen to the experiences of parents who have been assertively defending their children’s right to have access to and receive a quality bilingual or dual language program. As peers in a setting where all points of view are valued, educators were able to listen to parents’ concerns about education, what their expectations are for their children’s learning and how that learning will impact their children’s future.

The policies that exist for bilingual education today in 49 states did not emerge spontaneously. And it was not the educators who raised the red flag on the inequalities for students whose native language was other than English. The Chinese families who brought forth the Lau vs. Nichols case (in California in 1973) argued that their children did not have equitable opportunity to learn when taught in a language they did not understand (English). Thus, they were denied an opportunity to achieve at high levels. The US Supreme Court agreed, stating that schools must provide appropriate language services to their students.

Twenty-seven years later, the struggle for equity in the education of language-minority students remains. The passage of Proposition 227 in the very state where the Lau case originated and the threat of other Unz-like initiatives is an attempt to dismantle the rights children saw validated under Lau. The initiatives that are cropping up in other states will deny equitable treatment, access and inclusion to language-minority children who will be placed in classrooms where they are immersed in English-only environments that blatantly devalue their language, their culture and their identity. These are environments that hinder learning.

Parents Mobilizing for Equity and a Call for Institutional Support

If those who are culturally and politically disenfranchised are to make headway in the emerging economy, they must hold fast to their cultural and linguistic identity. Without a doubt, challenges exist for any group of parents organizing to ensure that schools are being inclusive of all children and families and to holding schools accountable. Much resistance will come from the institution being pressured to change and from parents themselves. Political support for equity for language-minority children is threatened as a wave of anti-bilingual policies are being introduced and passed in state legislatures and in Congress.

As advocates and educators, we must be unwavering on our stance for quality language programs. We must also actively support the nurturing and flourishing of parent leadership. Recognizing families as valuable partners in education and in our future as a society will keep us from being vulnerable to those who attack our children’s right to have a quality education.

A mobilized community takes on a life of its own, it does not waiver, it seeks truth and it keeps pressuring for the good of everyone in the community. We must mobilize to reclaim our schools and make them work for all children. It is possible.


Cárdenas, J.A. Multicultural Education: A Generation of Advocacy (Needham Heights, Mass.: Simon & Schuster Publishing Custom Publishing, 1995).

Montemayor, A.M. “Parents Organizing Bilingual Education Advocates: Parent Institutes as a Strategy,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, May 1999).

Montemayor, A.M. “The Nurturing of Parent Leadership,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, September 1997).

Robledo Montecel, M. “IDRA Reaction to Passage of California Proposition 227 (Unz Initiative),” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June-July 1998).

Scott, B. “We Should Not Kid Ourselves: Excellence Requires Equity,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February 2000).

Anna Alicia Romero is an education assistant in the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2000, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June – July 2000 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.]