All families are valuable; none is expendable. The Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) adapted this phrase from our very successful Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program in which we model the paradigm of valuing. Our use of the word valuing is deliberate and pragmatic. We wish to champion and speak for the inclusive, nondiscriminatory and triumphalist idea that all families (particularly those who are economically disadvantaged, minority or speak a language other than English) are inherently good and worthy of being treated with respect, dignity and value.
IDRA’s goal is bigger than parent involvement in education, rather it is parent leadership. This model is a vision of all parents as advocates of excellent neighborhood public schools. We consider leadership the culminating set of activities in a spectrum of parent participation. In this context, leadership is:
- based on peer support and rotating responsibilities,
- ongoing invitation and support of new leadership,
- connecting parents and communities across race, ethnic and class divisions,
- focusing on collective action for the good of all children, and
- building relationships and trust that are essential to the process.
The characteristics we support in the development of leadership are in contrast to some traditional parent leadership models that emphasize individual assertiveness and charismatic advocacy. Our process supports parents in learning to work in groups, planning and carrying out activities, speaking in front of groups, and developing other personal skills and traits that develop the individual. But, our emphasis is on collective action, listening to peers, and revolving tasks and leadership roles.
IDRA Parent Involvement Model
IDRA’s concept of the leadership role is part of a broader schema for parent involvement. Our underlying assumption (paradigm) is that of valuing as illustrated in facilitating parents to identify the strengths and assets in themselves and their peers. Key characteristics of the process include the following.
- Establish strong communication links and relationships among parents.
- Support and nurture networks with schools and community organizations.
- Recruit peers to participate and support emerging leaders to train other parents and community members to be leaders.
- Listen to peers by conducting focus groups with other parents.
- Reflect on activities, debrief, acknowledge successes, analyze actions, and integrate lessons learned into future plans.
- Provide contexts and opportunities for parents to be spokespersons and advocates.
- Learn to work in groups, including conducting meetings, listening to all ideas, resolving conflicts, making decisions, carrying out plans of action, and evaluating results.
- Support long-term relationships among participating families.
- Act on issues of current interest.
- Plan and carry out conferences for parents by parents on the topic of public education.
Comparison of Two Parent Involvement Typologies
Currently in the field of parent involvement, Joyce Epstein’s “Six Types of Involvement” from School, Family, and Community Partnerships is the only major comprehensive model that is research-based. The perspective of the Epstein model is institutional. It works well to help schools look at a variety of ways to reach out to and involve families.
Epstein’s six types of parent involvement are:
- learning at home,
- decision-making, and
- collaborating with the community
The Epstein model sees each type of involvement as an area of responsibility that the school must carry out in a comprehensive and well-designed parent involvement program.
The perspective of the IDRA model, on the other hand, is parent-centered (Montemayor, 1997). IDRA’s four types of parent involvement are:
- parents as teachers,
- parents as resources,
- parents as decision-makers, and
- parents as leaders and trainers.
The IDRA model differs from the Epstein model in significant ways. For example, “parenting” and “learning at home” are part of IDRA’s first step, “parents as teachers.” “Communicating” permeates all four steps in the IDRA model. “Volunteering” is a part of IDRA’s “parents as resources” step. “Collaborating with the community” is part of IDRA’s “parents as resources” and “parents as leaders and trainers” steps.
In the IDRA model, valuing and assets acknowledgment undergird each step of participation. We see the parent as teacher, first of all. This validates and acknowledges all the parent already is, has done and will continue to do with his or her child: as parent, teacher, communicator, supporter, role-model, values transmitter, etc.
This is typically the area of greatest interest to most parents who are not actively engaged with their child’s school. Research shows that the effects of parent influence are greatest in reading: If the family reads, the child will read. Similar research findings exist for amount of time spent watching television and school attendance.
The next level in the IDRA parent model is a further opportunity to validate and give respect to the parent as an experienced, capable, thinking and complex being. We support parents to be and be seen as rich resources in language, culture, history, empathy and many other possibilities to the school beyond simply volunteering to do chores and providing money and snacks to the school.
In the third level, parents as decision-makers, IDRA supports and encourages parents to participate in all aspects of the school process. They should be recognized as full partners in planning, curriculum and instruction. This does not mean asking professionals to abdicate their responsibilities but finding means of integrating parent points of view and experiences into all aspects of running the school.
The decision-making effort, which is a strong move in the direction of leadership, has been documented, and training materials are available. Though not as common or as widespread as the materials for parents as teachers and parents as resources to schools, there is a body of literature that supports developing parents as decision-makers on committees and boards. The research identifies skills needed to work effectively in groups.
The fourth level of IDRA’s model of parent participation, the focus of this article, is parents as leaders. In our definition and experience, this kind of leader is one who listens deeply to his or her peers, who accepts responsibility for advocating the rights of all children, who is assertive but also accepts rotating responsibility, who values collective action more than personal recognition, and who trains other parents to be leaders.
The method that the IDRA model emphasizes goes beyond most schema for parent involvement and has been the least documented and researched outside of IDRA. Yet the need for this kind of leadership is great.
Laboratories for Leadership Development
In 1995, IDRA launched a focused and sustained effort to carry out our parent involvement model, with strong focus on the leadership level. With the support of the Ford Foundation through its national Mobilization for Equity, IDRA established a pattern of community conferences that served as training laboratories for leadership.
The challenge accepted by the participating parents was to plan and carry out an educational conference for parents by parents. The constants in the process were dialoguing as peers, mutual listening, reporting to large groups, connecting conversation to action, and refining through reflection.
A key element in each conference has been that each major speaker is given time for his or her presentation followed by small group discussions and reports from the small groups. The small group discussions are critical in allowing all participants to voice what the main points were for them, what they learned, and implications for their action. By having a report from each group, the discussions are given further validation, and the number of individuals presenting before the large group is increased significantly.
The parents play many roles in the process. All of them are part of the planning. They assist with registration and welcoming guests, they provide the breakfast snacks, they usher and organize the seating arrangements, they emcee, they present, they facilitate, they report, they network and form new connections, they encourage feedback and gather evaluations, and they debrief and reflect together. Each conference enabled all aspects of the planning, carrying out and evaluating to be a learning experience for the parents and families involved.
Initially, four of the events were local conferences held in San Antonio, independent of any other organization or group. A loose knit group of parents and others in the community was formed. The group members called themselves FUEGO (Families United for Education: Getting Organized [Familias unidas para la educación: ganando organizadas]) (Romero, 1997).
In addition, a small group of parents in Boerne, near San Antonio, held its own local conference with support from FUEGO parents. A group from Project ARISE, based in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and mostly from unincorporated communities called colonias, attended the Boerne conference. They have recently held their own conference, which included discussions on education issues. A group in El Paso, Bienestar Familiar, has also recently held its own education conference with the guidance and support of IDRA staff.
Parallel to these events, IDRA has assisted with parent institutes held as part of state and national organization events (Montemayor, 1999). In 1998 and 1999, FUEGO parents planned, carried out and evaluated two parent institutes held in San Antonio and Corpus Christi for the Texas Association for Bilingual Education. In 1998, FUEGO parents helped plan and carry out a parent institute for the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) convention held in Dallas. In 1999, assistance was given to the parent portion of the NABE convention in Denver. This past February, the San Antonio parents planned, hosted and carried out the parent institute for the NABE national convention held in San Antonio.
As part of the Seventh Annual IDRA La Semana del Niño Early Childhood Educators Institute, a parent institute was held with more than 150 parents participating. This reflected the results of a new outreach effort being piloted by IDRA. Parents and some educators from San Antonio and other Texas sites participated in bilingual (Spanish/English) presentations on parent leadership and bilingual early childhood education. As in previous conferences, there were small group dialogues and reports to the large group.
During the last three years, IDRA has been expanding parent leadership opportunities by hosting live interactive video conferences. For each, we have joined 10 or more Texas sites with educators and parents. The presentations and conversations have been bilingual (Spanish/English), and the panelists have been parents and educators presenting on parent leadership, bilingual education, quality early education programs, and after school programs. The process has allowed for interaction across all sites, with discussions and problem solving using vignettes related to the conference topics. These video conferences also gave new access to technology to parents who had not previously experienced it and provided one more type of laboratory for leadership development.
Advocacy can burn out the isolated leader. IDRA has had consistent and persistent success in our efforts to support parent leadership. We have seen some people pull back and then return. Because of this phenomenon, we encourage emerging leaders to follow our model of peer support and connection. The leadership aspects that we will continue to nurture surround issues of sustainability, tenacity, and commitment over time.
We have participated in and experienced other programs that focus on teaching parents their rights. Many advocacy organizations have developed excellent materials and training programs to do this. We do not wish to recreate those processes, and we support any and all programs that teach parents about their rights and the children’s rights.
IDRA operates on a research-based and data-driven process. Yet our commitment to all children is, in many aspects, an act of faith and a position of advocacy that comes from our sense of justice, democracy and compassion. We will not be diverted by faulty research that attempts to prove an inherent inferiority of particular ethnic groups. We will never support the idea that economically-disadvantaged, limited-English-proficient and minority-families have little hope for their children to succeed in school because of inherent “deficits” in their family structure, culture or class. In fact, IDRA has research demonstrating otherwise (Robledo Montecel, et al., 1993).
Currently, research on what affects student achievement is driving reform efforts. In this environment and public dialogue, high standards have become the linchpins of improving education and creating an educated citizenry. There are obviously serious questions to many parts of the syllogism. One widespread, though questionable, indicator is the standardized test. Test scores are being touted as effective measures of student achievement, and, therefore, indicators of good schools, effective curriculum and instruction, equity, and good parent support.
All IDRA efforts are aimed at producing excellent schools that work for all children. So in our parent participation efforts, we recognize the importance of students’ learning, achieving and having great success in school, from the elementary school level to the post-secondary school level. We are left with the challenge to support parent advocacy of these issues on the one hand, and the need to measure impact of parent advocacy on the other.
IDRA’s court testimony on the rights of children of undocumented workers to a free public education is an example. We measure our impact by those thousands of children who are receiving an education in spite of prejudices that others may feel toward recent immigrant families. We know that all those students that have become literate and computer-proficient citizens and workers in our society would have ended up as illiterate low-wage earners in bottom level jobs if the Supreme Court had not defended their right to an education.
We must advocate parent leadership in spite of the difficulty of measuring its impact. This difficulty is not a problem of having no impact to measure. It is in determining how to measure the impact on children’s learning, over time, of a single factor (parent leadership) in the midst of multiple factors.
Our challenge is to find the ways to document the effects of parent leadership in education. When a group of courageous parents defend their children’s right to have a state-of-the-art campus in their barrio with effective, appropriately credentialed teachers and with spacious facilities and reasonable student-teacher ratios, we must document the effect on the children. It is likewise important that we document and recognize the value of parents defending their own rights to be heard and seen as real stakeholders in education. It can be done, and we encourage the research community to put effort into it.
Otherwise, we will continue to show simply that parents who read produce children who read. As a result, schools’ activities for parent involvement will primarily consist of classes to teach parents to read and help their children with homework.
The preponderant volumes of research are looking at family patterns, education and relationships at home. From these studies, researchers will continue to portray families through deficit model lenses: some families are broken and need to be fixed. The easy or expedient path in parent involvement research is to document “good” vs. “not-so-good” family patterns and then develop a program to turn the “not-so-good” to the “better” and document how the children improve in school when their parents become “better” parents. Usually, this pattern merely serves to reinforce race, ethnic and class biases.
Moreover, there is a burgeoning industry of parent educators who are developing programs to meet the needs of parents who feel guilty about not being the best of parents. This guilt trip is clearly a cheap shot to which most parents can be the prey. We at IDRA are not assuming perfection, nor are we impractical idealists about families. Obviously, some families have serious problems. But that reality can apply to families of any race, ethnicity, culture, class and neighborhood. Perhaps family “problems” are simply more visible in poorer neighborhoods, particularly when this is the main place researchers are looking.
Feasibly, we cannot measure how many field workers today have a better living wage, accessible restrooms and other protections as workers because Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and others provided leadership in fighting for their rights. It is equally difficult to empirically measure the benefits to society of Rosa Parks’ decision to stay in her seat at the front of the bus. Yet few doubt the tremendous positive results of these actions.
Our faith in parent leadership in education presents a similar challenge. We believe that parents will ultimately make a critical difference in ensuring that our neighborhood public schools provide the best possible education for all children. Parent leadership will make it happen. Our hearts and our experiences know: All children can learn. No child is expendable; all families are valuable.
Epstein’s Six Types of Parent Involvement
IDRA’s Four Types of Parent Leadership
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. and A. Gallagher, A. Montemayor, A. Villarreal, N. Adame-Reyna, J. Supik. Hispanic Families As Valued Partners: An Educator’s Guide (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1993).
Romero, A.A. “Parents Speak Out: Quality Education for All Children,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, September 1997).
Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., is the lead trainer in IDRA’s Division of Professional Development. Anna Alicia Romero is an education assistant in the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.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.]