by Pam McCollum, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • September 1997

Pam McCollumIn 1993, IDRA received funds from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to conduct a study on the improvement of education for recent immigrant students over a three­year period. IDRA was one of four entities funded to conduct school­based collaborative research in distinct geographic regions of the country containing high concentrations of immigrant students. Three sites in Texas – Jane Long Middle School in Houston, and Bowie High School and Guillen Middle School in El Paso – comprised the Texas Immigrant Education Collaborative (TIEC). The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation set three broad goals for the project:

  • Improve students’ level of English proficiency.
  • Improve students’ level of academic achievement.
  • Facilitate immigrant students’ progress to post­secondary schooling or employment.

These goals were to be achieved collaboratively through the work of school­level personnel, community­based organizations, the business community and institutions of higher education. Our university collaborator in Houston was the University of Houston­Downtown, while the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) collaborated with us in El Paso. The TIEC project provided educators the opportunity to determine how to serve recent immigrant students more effectively, how to design a plan for accomplishing the project’s broad goals, and how to tailor proposed efforts to their particular student population and community. In effect, the project afforded educators the opportunity to “build space” in traditional school structures that often do not take immigrant students into account, particularly at the secondary level. In general, the education of immigrant students faces several problems (McCollum and García, 1996). These include

  • a shortage of trained personnel to meet the specific needs of immigrant students;
  • a lack of appropriate assessment policies and procedures;
  • few curricular and programmatic alternatives for late entrant students to develop language, academic and life skills to prepare for life after high school;
  • an inflexible school structure; and
  • a lack of resources allowing educators to collaborate to make necessary changes.

Futhermore, there are several obstacles to parent participation in schools (McCollum, 1996). These include

  • a lack of understanding on the part of educators and parents,
  • parents’ jobs,
  • language differences, and
  • traditional attempts to “change” parents instead of valuing them.

This project worked to adapt existing practices and design new strategies in order to educate immigrant students more effectively. Forging links between the school and community was emphasized in order to facilitate immigrant students’ transition into the world of work or continued schooling. The participating schools in El Paso used a novel approach to forge their school­community connections. For one of their staff development days, they held a “community walk” that brought teachers out into the neighborhood where they taught.

The Community Walk

The high school faculty had tried traditional methods to attract parents to school, such as sending out Spanish and English bilingual fliers announcing parent meetings at the high school. But these were not successful. This prompted a volunteer from a community­based organization who works with the TIEC community task force to suggest a more novel approach for getting parents to come to school. He suggested the faculty step out into the neighborhood and show their interest in the community by conducting a community walk, or la caminata de la communidad. The volunteer had conducted such an activity the previous year at a school in New Mexico, and it proved to be very successful. The main purpose of the community walk was to have teachers acquaint themselves with the community their students live in by walking through the neighborhood, learning about significant landmarks and interacting with residents. “part from raising teachers’ awareness about the community, a secondary purpose of the activity was to give parents and teachers a chance to interact. Parents were encouraged to join the caminata and return to Bowie High School for lunch.

Meeting parents on their own “turf” is rarely done in large urban school districts where teachers typically live outside the school district and commute to and from the neighborhood for work. Nevertheless, the idea of the “walk” immediately appealed to the project’s community task force and to Bowie High School’s principal, who reserved the school’s first full day of staff development training the following September for the event.

The walk’s organizing committee named itself la comunidad unida and met six times from June to August of 1994. Individual volunteers from the community and representatives of community­based organizations that had experience in volunteer work primarily comprised the committee along with teachers from Bowie High School and Guillen Middle School. The magnitude of their task included securing permission from the city council to hold the walk, securing a parade permit, recruiting police officers to oversee the event, and providing water and planning restroom stops for the participants. Monetary donations were solicited from local businesses to cover the cost of permits and other necessary items. In­kind donations consisted of a first aid station, a public address system, day­care services, buttons for committee members, bakery goods and bottled water.

The walk stirred a good deal of action in a normally quiet neighborhood not used to seeing teachers walking its streets. It started at 8 a.m. at the neighborhood community center. It began with welcome comments by the principals of Bowie High School and Guillen Middle School. The district’s city councilman, defined the event as a demonstration that the community could bond together to provide a safe environment for its children. The opening concluded with a blessing from a neighborhood priest. Teachers received a flier at the gathering from la comunidad unida which read:

Our community houses the children you teach, counsel and guide. You are invited to visit their homes, learn about their community, their history, their environment and, most of all, learn about them and the people of their community. Look, listen and enjoy your visit. Welcome –


The walk covered approximately 30 city blocks. At two of the stops, a group of matachines (ceremonial dancers of Aztec origin) danced for the participants. The group was composed of 11 students from the area who ranged in grades from elementary school to high school, and a man who was the drummer, teacher and leader. Students were dressed in traditional costumes.

The walk route took participants through housing projects and past community centers, social service agencies and important landmarks. The local media covered the event. Once the participants reached the end of the route, buses took them to Bowie High School where the principal and Guillen Middle School’s principal spoke to the group. Afterward, everyone shared a lunch provided by Bowie High School.

Was it Worth it for the Parents?

IDRA conducted interviews with 15 of the participants (11 teachers and four parents). Mrs. Silva (pseudonym), a parent, said:

    There are many times when parents are afraid to speak to teachers. Maybe it’s because of their English. But since the walk, I’ve seen a change. Since the walk, we’ve had a lot of success getting parents to come to school. Let me tell you about our people. We are humble and sometimes we don’t speak to teachers because of that. Now I see a difference.

When asked if she thought the teachers gained something from the walk, she responded:

Pues, sí. La confianza

    [Well, yes, confidence]. They gained confidence because when we went walking, people applauded them in some areas. They hung out the windows and cheered. They cheered, ‘Bravo, there are the teachers!’ And now there’s more understanding of the school on the part of the parents.

Mrs. Silva described the route of the walk in detail and said the lunch afterwards was especially nice. She particularly liked the fact that many people who normally did not have a chance to interact were able to spend time together – police officers, school security officers, janitors, parents and teachers. She said, “Estuvo bello! It’s the first time I’ve seen something like that. La unión hace la fuerza [There’s strength in numbers].” Many parents echoed this same sentiment with similar comments. Another woman, Mrs. Chávez (pseudonym), said:

“Ahora las comunidades están unidas, y es bonito. Pienso que conociéndonos es como vamos a solucionar problemas en la comunidad donde estamos viviendo

    [Now the communities are united and it’s beautiful. I think that by knowing each other, we will solve the problems of our community].

Mrs. Silva also thought the walk was something to which everyone could relate:

It was something that made the community happy. There were so many people. It was beautiful, beautiful! Many people were delighted with it. They had

matachines from the community, and people were delighted. It had a positive impact.

Yo pienso que el profesorado de cualquier escuela tiene que tener El corazón en la mano para querer a su alumno

    [I think teachers from any school need to show they care deeply about their students]. It came out on television also. It was positive for me and for my community. I even heard that our arch rival down the street wants to participate next year.

Did Teachers Benefit?

The community walk is an example of what J. Epstein describes as “collaborating with the community” (1995). It is only one type of collaboration within a model comprised of five other components:

  • Parenting
  • Communicating
  • Volunteering
  • Learning at home
  • Decision making

The model involves forming partnerships among parents, schools and communities to improve education. The following are characteristics of successful collaboration programs:

  • Progress is incremental as families and schools learn to work together.
  • Connections are made to curricular and instructional reform.
  • Staff development is redefined as an active form of developing staff talents and capacities.

In addition to acquiring advanced knowledge and improved skills, teachers need to acquire new values and conceptions of practice that disprove the commonly held notion that disadvantaged students are unable to attain high standards (Brophy, 1988).

All of the participating teachers that IDRA interviewed agreed that their past experiences with staff development training had, for the most part, been unsatisfactory. They also reported that they enjoyed being able to actively expand their awareness and examine their professional values and commitments.

The walk served to enlighten new as well as experienced teachers. Those who were new to El Paso and to teaching were surprised by the poverty of the area, yet they recognized other “rich” aspects of the community as well. Even a former resident profited from the experience by learning that changes had taken place in the area. She reflected that those changes – the existence of gangs that are identified with particular subareas of the neighborhood – have implications for her teaching practices. Knowing where students live and what areas must be crossed in order to get to school enlightens teachers as to what might endanger students, and thus explains to the teachers why students sometimes do not care how well their assignment is done when they are kept after school. They want to finish quickly and get home safely.

Being aware of children’s backgrounds made some teachers reflect on the gap between the formal school curriculum and its relevance to students’ lives outside the classroom. There was the recognition that students who are worried over problems of their existence and/or conflict in the home may not devote the same amount of time to studying items in the curriculum that may seem trivial in comparison. Such recognition of the gap between the formal school curriculum and the practices and knowledge of the community opens the door to making instruction more relevant to students.

Teachers from both campuses offered excellent suggestions for future community walks. All wished to have more contact with parents. Teachers who are not bilingual were reminded of the asset that dual language skills provide within the community.

In summary, in the opinion of teachers and parents, the community walk accomplished its basic goals. It demonstrated good faith on the part of teachers to get to know the community where they work and also demonstrated their sincerity in advocating a heightened parent and community involvement in their schools. It provided an excellent example of the researcher Epstein’s sense of collaborating with the community and demonstrated that teachers and parents can learn from one another. The community walk was a first step in breaking home­school barriers and establishing school, family and community partnerships where parties teach and assist each other.


Brophy, J. “Research Linking Teacher Behavior to Student Achievement,” Educational Psychologist (1988) 23(3), 235­286.

Epstein, J. “School­Family­Community Partnerships: Caring for the Children We Share,” The Kappan (May, 1995) 701­712.

McCollum, P. “Obstacles to Immigrant Parent Participation in Schools,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November­December 1996).

McCollum, P. and J. García. “Immigrant Education from the Administrators’ Perspective,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November­December 1996).

Dr. Pam McCollum is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent to her via E­mail at

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 1997 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.]