• by Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • April 2009

The 3D Glasses

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed.I’m old enough to remember the first 3D movies with the special glasses that were given out to viewers. Whether it was Bwana Devil or House of Wax, the screen was blurry without the Polaroid plastic lenses. You just couldn’t get the full effect without them. In fact, when the film was shown later on TV, the scenes that were meant to jump out at you were uninteresting and made little sense in terms of the story line. You totally missed the novelty of a ball leaping from the screen straight at you. Similarly, if you want to get the full effect of IDRA’s family leadership activities, you need to see them through the lens of our principles.

Live Action: Families and their Children

The broad umbrella of families’ connection to the education of their children has many strands, each with its own goals. For newborns and very young children, the focus of services is primarily information and support around health and safety. New parents need and want this support.

As the child develops, the early stages of child growth and development become the focus. Discipline, limits and social behaviors are of concern, as are language development and communication. When the child is of school age, education becomes the center focus for most families.

The Root Beer Bottle Bottom Lens

We can choose to gaze at families dealing with their children during these stages and look through the lens of limitation and ignorance to see the families as needing and the children as hurting. We can list, as some popular writers and consultants do, the assumed characteristics of poor families and see the families and children through that lens. This chosen lens colors the viewer’s attitude and dictates his or her actions. If something is seen as broken, then the action is to fix it; if lacking, then fill that void.

This deficit stance has been present in our schools for many generations and is reborn for each new generation with perhaps new colors and shiny gloss. But it is still the same old same old. Twenty years ago, a well-known and respected research firm approached IDRA about a survey on dropouts they were conducting. The survey instrument was a long catalog of the many possible deficits the students might have that were considered possible reasons they had dropped out of school. Might a set of questions about the institution have revealed a different set of data?

It can be termed as common sense, pointing out the obvious, quoting the internalized self-recrimination of some families, getting children from poor neighborhoods to attest to the horribleness of their existence, etc. Sadly, this point of view is held and nurtured across the political and class spectrum.

In addition to being a distorted and inaccurate (and certainly unfair) view, it also isn’t practical. It doesn’t work.

So some consultants get hurrahs and hosannas from educators as they reap such high-paid contracts. Why not? Their presentations and advice echo what was already suspected by the participants and is artfully reinforced by the presenter. And all because we care so much about these poor, abused, needy and scarred children. “These poor parents, they’ve been a mess, but what do you expect? They’re poor, not just economically, but in spirit, in language, in culture, in civility, in social skills, in their limited expectations for their children.” Ad nauseum.

Another Set of Glasses

IDRA has used a valuing point of view and with dramatically different results. Our constant challenge has been to get the teachers of the students in the program to change glasses… to view the students as they really are: valuable assets rather than as at-risk, close-to-being-lost-by-the-school problems.

This is why our principles are so important. Each one is interrelated with the others but also stands by itself as an important premise and undergirding of our actions in support of parent leadership in education. Following is an overview of IDRA’s principles for family leadership in education.

1. Families can be their children’s strongest advocates. This premise is based on the natural almost universal inclination in families to defend their children. It points to the potential that all families have in speaking for, defending and supporting their children. The advocate role requires little explanation or rationale when addressing any group of families. The conversation usually shifts to how and when to advocate effectively. Just as all children are valuable and none is expendable, so is our view of families that each must be respected and treated as the crucial defender and protector of their children.

2. Families of different races, ethnicities, languages and classes are equally valuable. Each group has assets, traditions and a language that is worthy of respect. Our most effective and impactful work with families and their schools happens when this principle is evident in the outreach and work done with families. Families engage with their children’s schools and the children blossom.

3. Families care about their children’s education and are to be treated with respect, dignity and value. Latinos and other groups consider education of their children a priority. This almost universal concern is the critical connection between families and schools and is a most useful basis for beginning a dialogue and a project that engages families more fully in the education of their children and that underlies effective outreach efforts.

4. Within families, many individuals play a role in children’s education. There are many key caretakers of children who are not genetic parents. The combination of all who live within a home are important influences on children and can be a collective force for creating excellent schools. For educators, this means rather than developing activities that assume a biological parent be present, design activities for whomever arrives and rejoice in the presence of whomever the family members are.

5. Family leadership is most powerful at improving education for all children when collective efforts create solutions for the common good. The power that families have in a neighborhood public school is in their numbers. Assertive individuals are good sparks and energizers, but the staying power resides in the network of families. When families connect around the education of their children and move to the group consciousness, they are drawing on the combined intelligence, energy and power to transform a school and to catalyze administrators to raise their hopes, standards and expectations for all children. When families operate out of optimism, draw on individual and neighborhood assets, and move a school to achieve new heights, all children benefit.

6. Families, schools and communities, when drawn together, become a strong, sustainable voice to protect the rights of all children. Transformation and improvement of schools lasts if it is only led from within. Families attempting to reform schools, when only acting as an external force, no matter how strong, rarely last beyond a few years. When families partner with school people and the broader community participates, there is a greater possibility for a sustained and positive reform of a school.

Are We Facing Reality?

A criticism could be made that these principles are romanticizing who families are and what they can accomplish. It’s almost the mirror image of the negative deficit model critiqued above.

These premises don’t assume all families are perfect or models of virtue or childrearers of the highest order. What these points of view bring is a different set of rules for effective work with parents. They discard “banking” notions of education for parents, that is, that the parents who happen to be poor and/or minority have empty little heads into which we will deposit coins of knowledge.

Under these assumptions, the reason for reaching out to families is to find out what they think, what they expect for their children and from the school, and what critical questions they have.

The reason for bringing parents together in a meeting, session, workshop or any other gathering is to have them analyze, synthesize and evaluate critical pieces of information. The idea is not to make them little lawyers and have them memorize large amounts of data, but to know that key data means and to seek more if it is important and relevant.

An asset-based model of operating doesn’t validate what precious knowledge and skills are present in the community because we want to improve their self-image and concept, but because those assets are the strength and power that will transform a school and a neighborhood.

Consultation, for Real, if You Follow Our Drift

For all the criticisms of the No Child Left Behind Act, some pieces have been very useful in carrying out our valuing model. Every requirement for a consultation on a Title I campus has been an opportunity to engage families in meaningful conversation and to enlighten teachers and administrators about the validity of our vision and principles.

So whatever changes or is reformed in the new federal education policy, we expect, we wish for, we are prepared to move on to school data presented in meaningful and disaggregated forms; families made partners and co-discussants of the standards; curriculum and instruction happening on a campus; and outreach and connection with the families being real, being personal and being a means to inquire what families think, invite and welcome to the table.

We Knew it Would Happen

It’s been heartwarming to see families and their children engaged in seeking and discussing online information, as well as families participating in dynamic dialogues about curriculum and instruction. Yes, it’s been positive and motivating, but given our point of view, not surprising.

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed, is an IDRA senior education associate and director of the Texas IDRA Parent Information and Resource Center. He also serves on the national board of PTA. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2009, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2009 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.]