• by Josie D. Cortez, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • June – July 2015 •

It was a fall day in 2007 when IDRA staff walked into a church room in a Brownsville colonia to first meet the executive directors of about a dozen community-based organizations (CBOs) in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. IDRA had just received funding from the Marguerite Casey Foundation to work with their grantees to strengthen their capacity in evaluating their work in communities that span two counties and several hundred square miles in deep south Texas. As we walked in with our projector and slides, we noticed there wasn’t a screen or an uncovered wall that would work. As is our custom, we improvised and put long tables up against the walls, using them for our introductory slide presentation.

The Marguerite Casey Foundation program officer at the time, Peter Bloch García, had set up the meeting primarily as an introduction for us. I still have that first meeting’s agenda with the warm-up activity titled, “What’s one story of how your organization made a difference for someone?” As each person spoke, it became clear how extraordinary these individuals and their organizations are. And what also became clear was the extraordinary force these individuals and their organizations could be if they worked together. Their reach could expand exponentially, as could their impact. Our last agenda item for that first meeting was: “¿Y Ahora Qué? And now what?”

A Powerful Network of Community Organizations

Eight years later, there is an Equal Voice-Rio Grande Valley Network with 11 CBOs and seven working groups, all collaborating to give voice to an estimated 50,000 constituents in their low-income communities. Throughout it all, with funding from the Marguerite Casey Foundation and leveraged funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the Kresge Foundation, IDRA has provided strategic capacity strengthening support to the Equal Voice-RGV Network and its individual organizations.

Our support has ranged from building technology infrastructure to strategic planning, from leadership development to creating policy advocacy tools. Our support has extended particularly to the Education Working Group, which is one of seven working groups of the Equal Voice-RGV Network (civic engagement, education, health, housing, immigration, jobs, and LGBT). These groups were initially formed in 2008 in response to the needs identified by the region’s families through a series of town hall meetings that were attended by over 5,000 RGV residents.

Eight Marguerite Casey Foundation-funded CBOs and other leaders participate in the Education Working Group: ARISE, Desarollo Humano, Mano a Mano/BCHC, LUPE, Proyecto Azteca, Proyecto Juan Diego, Vida Digna, and IDRA. This year, the group focused on back-to-school efforts and educating the community about the detrimental effects of House Bill 5 passed by the Texas State Legislature in 2013 that lowers the number of college prep credits in the graduation requirements and creates multiple curricular tracks, with technical and vocational education in place of college-prep education for a number of students. It is the Education Working Group’s concern that the implementation of this tracking program will leave students unprepared for college and without the necessary credits for admission to college, particularly for the students in their communities – mostly South Texas colonias (unincorporated communities).

A Revealing Community Survey about Graduation Requirements

As part of this effort, the Education Working Group recently developed and administered a survey to parents in the region to find out what information has been provided to them, what they understand about the new graduation requirements, and whether they know the implications of the decisions being made for their children’s education. Over a two-month period, the Education Working Group collected more than 1,629 surveys across 24 school districts and 30 cities across the Rio Grande Valley. IDRA analyzed the survey data and developed a report with the survey’s key findings, implications, and recommended next action steps for communities.

This was one of the first – if not the only – community survey on Texas’ curriculum tracking policies during the first year of its implementation in schools. Over 1,000 survey respondents with children in public schools in the Rio Grande Valley consistently reported the same thing: Most parents have not received information on HB5 curriculum tracking requirements. They have been told little, if anything, about HB5’s tracking procedures or its impact on their children’s education.

The EV-RGV Network families have one other thing in common: close to 100 percent signed their names and provided contact information on the surveys to request information on the new HB5 graduation requirements.

Information dissemination is a start, but much more is needed. Families need to know the facts and they need to know the true implications of certain decisions involving the curriculum options that will be offered to students. This includes the fact that students should not be tracked into low-level courses nor into different diploma routes or graduation plans, and parents – by law – are supposed to be involved in those decisions impacting their children. Also, school districts can use the option that puts all students on a graduation plan that matches the former 4-by-4 (16 high quality core curriculum courses – four years each in English, math, science and social studies), the curriculum that prepared all students to enroll in college.

Recommended Next Steps

This community survey is just the latest example of what is possible when people come together to fight for the right of every child to have an equitable and excellent education.

I began this article with the memory of a first meeting in a church room in a Brownsville colonia. Peter Bloch García and others had a vision back then of what was possible if people would work together for a common purpose so that people living in poverty would have an equal voice in deciding the quality of their lives. Eight years later, the Equal Voice-RGV Network is recognized as a smart and strong champion for Rio Grande Valley colonia residents. It has become a game changer in the socio-political landscape of housing, health, civic engagement, jobs, immigration, and education. And the transformation that is occurring in South Texas can be seen every day.

Look for more information on the community survey results and our work with the EV-RGV Network and the Education Working Group in the coming months.

Josie D. Cortez is a senior education associate in IDRA’s Civic Engagement Department. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at josie.cortes@idra.org.

[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June – July 2015 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.]