State education departments are always looking for ways to improve low-performing schools, and not always finding them. In 1992, the Texas Education Agency agreed to try something unusual – a proposal by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) to harness its community organizing skills in the cause of local school reform.
Under the plan, the state put up $350,000 for an “Alliance Schools” network. The network’s 22 low-performing member schools also received a special “green light” status to free them from red tape. IAF, in turn, drew on its existing base in local congregations to organize parents and teachers in support of school improvement efforts.
Since 1992, the network has grown to over 200 schools throughout the Southwest, concentrated in Texas but with a growing presence in New Mexico, Arizona, and Los Angeles. As with most urban school reform efforts nationally, the results have varied widely.
In El Paso and neighboring Ysleta, many Alliance Schools became nationally recognized in the 1990s for their success in rapidly closing the “achievement gap” between white and Latino students; others in Fort Worth and the Rio Grande Valley have received awards from prestigious groups such as the Carnegie Foundation or have been featured on national television for their remarkable success in turning around troubled urban sites. Other Alliance Schools have struggled over the years, however, and the IAF has had to reckon with the reality that even when schools are failing, some administrators and teachers will throw up barriers to any change, especially those that require them to open their doors to parent and community leaders.
One of the keys to the Alliance Schools’ success is their engagement and development of parent-leaders. Engaging parents in school reform isn’t always easy. It requires patient, sustained dialogue, and a willingness to address the whole range of concerns in parents’ lives, making connections when they arise.
At Zavala Elementary School in East Austin, for example, community organizers, parent leaders, and teachers working with the local IAF group, Austin Interfaith, weren’t getting very far as they tried to engage low-income, Chicano and immigrant Mexican parents in school improvement activities. Parents were preoccupied with the pressures of making a living and keeping their kids out of harm’s way, and did not respond to calls to participate in this new effort. But Austin Interfaith didn’t give up.
An opportunity came when city health officials decided to temporarily relocate health services in East Austin. Parents were alarmed that their children would no longer have access to the doctors and nurses who had worked at the clinic that was being moved. Austin Interfaith used this concern as an organizing point, and proposed moving the children’s services in the clinic directly into Zavala Elementary School. That issue brought out the parents in droves, and parents who had been watching the organizing efforts at Zavala from the sidelines emerged to become vocal community leaders. Eventually, pressure from a coalition of Zavala parents and teachers working together forced the Austin School Board to bring the clinic into the school.
Now that parents and teachers had won an important political struggle together, they began asking themselves how they could collaborate to improve the learning climate of Zavala, which had a rock-bottom ranking on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Parents began volunteering to help in classrooms and tutor children after school; teachers decided to drop their rudimentary curriculum and to teach all children using Austin’s “gifted and talented” resources; and teachers and parents organized new programs to ensure that Zavala graduates would join accelerated programs at the middle school level, rather than being tracked into the bottom ranks. These efforts raised Zavala into the upper half of elementary schools in Austin within three years.
As with Zavala, many Alliance Schools begin their organizing work around pressing community needs – crime prevention, the disappearance of living wage jobs, improving housing and other kinds of community infrastructure. In the Lower Texas Border and greater El Paso areas, it was battles over drinking water, electricity, and paved roads that laid the foundation for successful Alliance School networks.
Once a patient dialogue and comprehensive outlook gets parents involved, the IAF keeps them engaged over the long term by developing their capacities as leaders. IAF organizers are not paid to work for the community; they are paid to develop the political leadership of a community, following what they call the “iron rule:” to never do for others what they can do for themselves. With a few exceptions, the IAF abstains from providing services, focusing instead on identifying indigenous community talent and cultivating civic capacity.
While IAF organizers sparked and guided the turnarounds of Zavala and other Alliance Schools, the real work was done by parent and teacher leaders, inner city ministers, and other community-based stakeholders. In the case of Zavala, a parent activist named Toña Vasquez mobilized parents from the neighborhood’s housing projects; nuns from the neighborhood Catholic church, El Cristo Rey, delivered powerful testimony at school board and city council meetings supporting the clinic; and Zavala teachers and their principal, Alejandro Mindiz-Melton, abandoned their narrow “professional” role and began thinking and acting like community organizers. “This work isn’t about charisma,” Mindiz-Melton says. “It’s about people learning to work together who understand that the school can be a vehicle for political organizing and social change. School doesn’t have to be a place where children just learn to read and write.”
No one has yet come up with an answer to all the problems of urban schools and communities, but the Alliance Schools and their commitment to parent engagement have won nationwide credibility as one of the boldest, scrappiest and most democratic approaches to have emerged in the last decade. They should be closely watched – and where possible, supported – by all friends of public education.