• by Laurie Posner, M.P.A. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2010 • Laurie Posner

Joe Medrano and Lourdes Flores are not teachers or school administrators. But they care deeply about how the children of their community – and their neighborhood public schools – are faring.

Mr. Medrano, who works with the non-profit START Center, is chairing an education working group for the community-based Equal Voice Network for the Rio Grande Valley. The group’s mission is to “educate and empower parents and families with the tools and information needed to effect change in their child’s education.”

Ms. Flores, with the faith-based non-profit ARISE, is working with Latina family leaders to form the grassroots PTA Comunitario whose aim is to strengthen education in the colonias of South Texas (see story in the April 2010 issue of the IDRA Newsletter).

In working to strengthen schooling from the outside in, Mr. Medrano and Ms. Flores join a growing cadre of grassroots leaders who are forging new family-school-community connections to catalyze school reform.

For community organizers, concern about education is, of course, not new. Long before the civil rights struggles for school desegregation and funding equity in recent decades, our nation saw a history of people’s movements for change. The March of the Mill Children in 1903 declared: “We want to go to school and not the mines,” and Chicago’s Back of the Yards Council, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, fought for hot lunches and neighborhood programs.

What is relatively new is the convergence of public awareness of education challenges facing the nation; the emergence and maturation of grassroots efforts to promote school reform; laws that call for improved family engagement and data systems, and leaders who strive to make them meaningful; and the web-based resources to support planning, organizing and networking. A new body of literature that examines how community organizing impacts public education is capturing these trends. And this work is finding that clear data – actionable knowledge available to communities, parents and schools at the local level – is essential to achieving any real reform.

Community Organizing: Strategies and Success (Mediratta, et al., 2009), for example, shares findings of a six-year national study of education reform efforts, instigated by more than half a dozen community- and faith-based organizations around the country. From Austin Interfaith and Miami’s People Acting for Community Together, to the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project, and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, each of these efforts draws on key data to illuminate educational conditions, develop strategies, communicate concerns and mobilize for action. Community Organizing opens with a vivid description of public school parents and community organizers in Oakland undertaking the “simple, yet profound, task” of creating a map of educational conditions in their city.

The Oakland map could be the blueprint of many cities: In the wealthy hills, it shows smaller schools and higher performing campuses; in the poorer flatlands, it shows over-crowded classrooms and low rankings. And the act of mapping provided both a tangible tool and a powerful metaphor: It illustrated local disparities in stark and practical terms, and it implied new community ownership of the issues and a new lens through which to understand them.

Calling for justice in the face of educational inequity and engaging families, youth and community leaders in school reform, as Mediratta, et al. (2009), point out, are among the chief contributions that organizing groups can make. “From a community organizing perspective,” the authors note, there is no “lack of social capital in poor communities and communities of color, but rather the lack of democratic control over how economic and cultural resources are distributed and deployed.”

And, in their view, democratization comes not only from the capacity to mobilize large numbers of people but from “members’ knowledge of schooling issues, the strength of their proposed solutions… and the legitimacy of their demands.” It is the kind of work that requires high quality, accessible data.

This power of “actionable knowledge” is underscored in Learning Power: Organizing for Education and Justice, which also examines the role of grassroots organizing and family leadership to improve public schools. In Learning Power, Oakes and Rogers use the term “disruptive knowledge” to describe the kind of knowledge that “challenges the facts the people hold… overturns complacency and makes it more likely that the listener will be moved to moral action” (2006).

Oakes and Rogers also caution that “compelling evidence alone [does] not always prevail.” To be effective organizers often must combine actionable knowledge with a host of other strategies, engaging media, drawing on existing civil rights laws, and activating powerful social networks.

Mobilizing Citizens for Better Schools, by Sexton (2004), describes a range of community-based strategies that draw on key data to transform education. This book chronicles the experience of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence in Kentucky, which Sexton directs and helped found in 1980. The committee sought to “bring diverse groups of people together around common concerns” by showing that “educational malnutrition paralleled equally dismal economic and social conditions, and… that something could be done if they would help.”

As a citizen group it achieved credibility, without formal authority, by speaking as citizens (not experts), building alliances and partnering with educators, clearly defining the issues, and promoting solutions (not blame). To accomplish this, the committee has relied heavily on data about the condition of education in Kentucky and has placed this data in the context of focused, strategic and practical solutions (Sexton, 2004).

Melding strategic and practical solutions to leverage change is also a central theme of IDRA’s most recent book, Courage to Connect – A Quality Schools Action Framework, edited by María Robledo Montecel and Christie Goodman. Courage to Connect shares IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework, a change model that family, school and community leaders can use in partnership to assess school conditions and outcomes, develop strategies for improvement, and leverage and build capacity for change.

The Quality Schools Action Framework also is the basis for IDRA’s Texas School Holding Power  portal (www.idra.org/portal). This interactive portal sparks in-depth conversations and supports school-family-community collaboration by providing campus-level outcome data (e.g., college-readiness and college participation) and input data (e.g., on whether students are enrolled in advanced courses and passing college entrance exams). New collaborative features enable portal visitors to conduct campus and community surveys and share findings with other partners.

Courage to Connect and this updated portal were both released at ¡YA! Es Tiempo, an event and call to action convened in South Texas by IDRA this summer. ¡YA! Es Tiempo brought together IDRA’s school partners with community and family leaders, like Joe Medrano and Lourdes Flores, who are promoting efforts across the Rio Grande Valley to strengthen education.

With vision, key partnerships and the power of “actionable knowledge,” these leaders and their counterparts around the country are bridging school-community divides and working at the leading edge of change.


Montemayor, A.M., “ARISE South Tower PTA Comunitario – A New Model of Parent EngagementIDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 2010).

Mediratta, K., & S. Shah, S. McAlister. Community Organizing for Stronger Schools: Strategies and Successes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press, 2009).

Oakes, J., & J. Rogers with M. Lipton. Learning Power: Organizing for Education and Justice. (New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 2006).

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

Sexton, R.F. Mobilizing Citizens for Better Schools (New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press, 2004).

Warren, M.R., & S. Hong, C.L. Rubin, P.S. Uy. “Beyond the Bake Sale: A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools,” Teachers College Record (New York, N.Y.: Teachers College, Columbia University, September 2009) Vol. 11, No. 9, pp. 2209-2254.

Laurie Posner, M.P.A., is an education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2010, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2010 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.]