Dr Robledo Montecel 2018María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D. • IDRA 50th Anniversary Galal Program • November 2, 2023 •

2023 marks 50 years of IDRA work, contributions and impact. I have journeyed with IDRA for 47 of those years, 26 years as IDRA President & CEO and the last four as IDRA President Emerita.

From the age of 23, I was shaped by the people of IDRA in the most profound ways, learning about moxy and leadership from IDRA founder Dr. José Angel Cárdenas, about compassion and brilliance from Dr. Bambi Cárdenas, and about systems and how to change them from Dr. Abelardo Villarreal.

I am grateful to them and to the women and men of IDRA across the decades who taught me about the key principles of advocacy, focus, independence, cohesiveness, responsiveness, innovation, cooperation, accountability and integrity.

My two sons, Ismael Gavino and Xavier Mario, are IDRA babies who are now 35 and 33. They taught me how to be a mother and IDRA President & CEO at the same time.

As I reflect on the work of IDRA across five decades, my sense is that our story is primarily a story of innovation, connection and faithfulness.

Bold innovation has been our way of disrupting the habit of schools and policymakers to act on the mistaken belief that students’ language, immigrant or migrant status, zip code, parents’ education level, or color of skin are the reasons for underachievement by big swaths of students in primarily poor and Brown and Black schools.

We asserted and have demonstrated that students who are poor or immigrant, are of one color or another, or live in poor neighborhoods, or do not speak English, do not make poor schools; rather underfunded schools, poor policy, and poor educational practices make for underachieving students.

With a 1973 $95,000 start up grant, IDRA began (as Texans for Educational Excellence) to conduct school finance research and advocacy. Rejecting the U.S. Supreme Court judgment in the Rodríguez v. San Antonio ISD school finance case, we fought in Texas courts providing equity research analyses, identifying needed reforms, and providing technical assistance and expert testimony in each of the Edgewood school finance trials. The Texas courts have declared that the state’s school funding system is equal enough. It is not.

IDRA has and will consistently fight for fair funding for all. We will continue to fight in collaboration with our partners until we have a truly equitable funding system.

In other key court cases, we fought policies that sought to exclude undocumented immigrant students from public schools. We provided extensive data for one of the first court cases dealing with the education of undocumented children in Texas, Doe v. Plyler. IDRA provided testimony in the Tyler, Houston and Dallas cases. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that undocumented children could not be excluded from public schools in the country.

Forty years later, Plyler is still strong as a U.S. Supreme Court decision and as law. At the K-12 level, IDRA publishes a yearly school opening alert about the legal requirement to educate undocumented students. We continue to monitor implementation of the law in public schools.

However, the fate of students who are undocumented and complete high school in the United States but are excluded from college continues to be a patchwork of inconsistent and deficit oriented policies across states. We continue to work to create and put in place Dreamer policies that do not exclude college students.

Among other policy innovations, IDRA helped write Texas’ first bilingual policy: the Bilingual Education and Training Act specifying conditions for bilingual instruction in elementary schools. We also studied the cost of bilingual education in Texas, Colorado and Utah, providing needed information about the costs and benefits of educating bilingual education students.

Since Texas was unwilling to fund needed programs, IDRA worked with MALDEF providing testimony and analysis in another court case showing that the school finance system was inequitable and that it under funds bilingual education and the education of students in families with low incomes.

Turning policy into practice, we established a bilingual training resource center, hosted bilingual training institutes for parents and school administrators, established the first parent information resource center in Texas, and pushed for and passed policies that help with funding and refer to students as emergent bilingual students rather than “limited” this or that.

Much remains to be done so that emerging bilingual students are enrolled in programs that have parity with monolingual or dual language programs. And bilingual programs at the secondary level continue to lag behind elementary schools.

From 1975, IDRA focused directly on professional development and school practices via innovation in managing multicultural and multilingual education. We developed targeted systems of technical assistance and training focused on educating underserved students in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

Over many years, we worked with the U.S. Department of Education and the Office for Civil Rights to define student rights and to work with schools to implement court-ordered desegregation in areas of race, national origin and gender.

Over a 10-year period, IDRA operated a comprehensive technical assistance center in Texas serving bilingual and migrant students as well as identifying the critical characteristics of high-poverty, high performing schools.

Five years ago, we began a long-term initiative with 11 states and Washington, D.C., to develop innovations that tackle the most critical issues around race, national origin and gender – impacting students’ education and civil rights in the U.S. South and its 2,341 school districts and 29,632 schools with over 1 million educators and 16 million students.

At the preschool level, innovations in curriculum resulted in our Amanecer program, the first comprehensive bilingual early childhood curriculum in the nation. Evolution of the materials as they were put to use in early childhood centers included Nuevo Amanecer and the current Semillitas de Aprendizaje™.

All our early education work is evidence based and focuses on student and family assets. Student and family assets are featured in two decades of Annual IDRA La Semana del Niño early childhood and parent institutes. IDRA recently co-led the Early Childhood English Learner Initiative. This led to required development of an early childhood statewide plan for support of emergent bilingual students.

Adding to innovation in teacher development, IDRA designed transition to teaching programs. Throughout a 15-year initiative, we partnered with universities and more than 55 school districts across Texas to prepare a new generation of skilled and effective teachers to lead and innovate in schools that needed them most. IDRA recruited over 800 recent graduate and mid-career professionals working in fields other than teaching. They took up teaching as a career, many focused on teacher shortage areas, including mathematics, English as a second language, and bilingual education.

We also launched a U.S.-Mexico binational and interdisciplinary program, Alianza, for teacher preparation and leadership development that launched a nationwide initiative.

In 1986, IDRA designed and conducted the first statewide research study of dropouts in Texas. The study was commissioned by the Texas Department of Commerce and the Texas Education Agency. That 1986 study found that 86,276 Texas students dropped out that year without completing high school at a cost of $17 billion to the state.

This research resulted in Texas House Bill 1010 that defined the term dropout, mandated dropout counting and reporting, and funded dropout prevention programs and staff across the state.

IDRA’s annual studies show a cumulative total of 4 million students have been lost to Texas schools before graduating high school. While rates have gone down, we are far from universal high school education.

IDRA also conducted a major dropout study of students who did and did not drop out of Dallas ISD schools. We found that Latino immigrant students had lower dropout rates than non-immigrant Latino students. We created a change model to guide the district in dropout prevention innovations.

IDRA’s Valued Youth Partnership program began as a “concept program” in Edgewood and by 1984 we had expanded to other schools in San Antonio. Over several decades of expansion and research, this award-winning IDRA model program grew to include 35,000 valued youth tutors in the United States and Puerto Rico and England and Brazil. The lives of more than three-quarters of a million students, families and educators have been positively impacted by this program.

The VYP program selects secondary school students who are considered at risk of dropping out, turns dire predictions upside-down and engages so-called ‘at-risk’ tutors as tutors of little ones in elementary schools. The program brings in families and communities, supports teacher initiatives and builds the capacity and willingness of the school to hold on to students until graduation.

Research has shown that 98% of tutors stay in school. So, schools see new possibilities in their valued youth tutors and tutees, and students and families see new possibilities in themselves.  For example, Pablo López was an eighth grade VYP tutor in Brownsville ISD. Years later, he became a police officer in McAllen and even later an investigator at the University of Texas at Pan American. He said that everything he learned about protecting and serving was in the Valued Youth Partnership program.

Other VYP tutors share that they learned to speak up for themselves, to see a future for themselves in college and even to consider teaching as a profession. And VYP teachers marvel at the transformations once the adults in the school recognize students as leaders.

Former San Antonio Councilman Rey Saldaña was a VYP tutee in second grade. And he is always happy to credit his tutor and IDRA for what he learned via the program.

We heard these stories in many places: whether in the southside of San Antonio or the South Side of Chicago, or in Sacramento, L.A., Santa Monica, California, and in the Bronx, New York.

Taking the important lessons from VYP, we have applied them to new ideas, like our Youth Leadership Now program in the El Paso area that integrates VYP, teacher mentoring and family engagement. IDRA also launched VisionCoders for middle schoolers to become software designers while supporting younger students. This program also furthers our history of supporting students’ STEM education.

Most recently, the Defense STEM Education Consortium named IDRA and the Alamo STEM Ecosystem as one of four STEM hubs in the country. As co-lead of the Alamo STEM Ecosystem, which brings together educators, industry and other partners, we are increasing opportunities for young students to work directly with technology to expand their problem-solving skills.

Even this partial list of IDRA accomplishments and impact make it clear that the innovations I have described would have been impossible without connecting various parts of our work.

I believe IDRA is itself an innovation. Our evolving and growing ability to work strategically across research, policy and practice is crucial and is part of what we believe gives IDRA’s work its value added.

Most organizations are either research organizations or they are policy organizations, or they are practice organizations, working with educators and providing technical assistance. We do all of that. And, importantly, we work across departments or divisions or disciplines. We apply interdisciplinary ideas and solutions to what we do.

Our research affects our educational practice work, which informs our policy and legal advocacy, and each domain is grounded in our community and student engagement.  Each domain intersects the others to have the greatest impact. And I think that if we deepen those links and deepen our interdisciplinary, inter-sector, inter-perspective work, IDRA will continue to create innovations that disrupt school failure and promote education for all.

Courageous connections are also fundamental to our work for equal educational opportunity. Two decades ago, we founded the Texas Latino Education Coalition, now called the Texas Legislative Education Equity Coalition focusing on fair funding, teaching quality, school holding power, and college access and success. Cofounders included MALDEF, Mexican American School Board Association, NAACP and LULAC. The Georgia Coalition for Education Justice, which IDRA created last year, has already convened a broad base of organizations and had key victories including stopping voucher bills in that state.

In 2010, IDRA published Courage to Connect: A Quality Schools Action Framework. The book details our theory of change model, based on experience and empirical evidence, for taking a look at a school’s conditions and outcomes, and identifying leverage points for improved and informed action.

Our IDRA story is one of bold innovation and courageous connection and, most fundamentally, uninterrupted faithfulness.

We are faithful to our mission: to achieve equal educational opportunity for every child through strong public schools that prepare all students to access and succeed in college.

We are, at our core, faithful to children: All children are valuable; none is expendable.

Back in the late 1970s, an administrator at TEA sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education saying that, because IDRA was testifying against schools, we should not get federal monies to help train educators.

We are not against schools. We are for students – all of them. That is why we testify in key court cases, why we publish seminal research, why we developed groundbreaking bilingual legislation and early childhood curriculum and materials, why we model effective professional development, why we organize and lead education coalitions, and why we create innovations in student leadership and authentic family engagement programs.

From the same agency, I was thanked by a different administrator for always being able to count on IDRA to tell the truth.

Some years back, I was talking to a Washington Post reporter. The resulting article, published in 2000 said IDRA was a gadfly organization. I did not know what to make of that as a descriptor of IDRA. I looked in my handy dictionary and found among other definitions that a gadfly is someone who rouses others out of complacency. And that we are and wish to be. Our gadfly awards remind us of who we are. And who we will continue to be as we step into a brilliant future for all students.

Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel is IDRA’s president emerita. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at robledo.montecel@idra.org.

[©2023, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA 50th anniversary gala program. 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.]