In south Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, just miles from the Texas-Mexico border, there is a grassroots movement afoot to transform education. Families in colonias – residential areas that often lack such necessities as access to water and sewers – have inspired each other and work together with school boards, educators and legislators to ensure their children are succeeding in school. Most families living in the colonias are recent immigrants, so primarily Spanish is spoken as they come together for meetings in places such as neighbors’ kitchens, community centers, or, in one instance, around a small Toyota truck turned into a makeshift office. Despite these surroundings, these “PTA Comunitarios” – organized and led by colonia families themselves with support and guidance from the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) – are effectively engaging parents and families with powerful efforts that go beyond traditional family participation in their child’s education.
The PTA Comunitario model created by IDRA is grounded in the organization’s “Family Leadership in Education” process, which sees families – regardless of their background – as advocates for and collaborators in creating excellent neighborhood schools. “What all of our families have in common is a deep and fervent interest in our children’s future,” said Lourdes Flores, co-founder of the first PTA Comunitario and president of the ARISE (A Resource In Serving Equality) Support Center. “Families, ARISE and IDRA – our ‘village,’ – are making every effort to make sure our children get an excellent education in a safe environment.”
This innovative family engagement model, run by local parents, is affiliated with a community-based organization. Because many of the families have not received effective outreach or are not interested in participating in a more traditional parent organization, the PTA Comunitarios help the least-connected communities become their children’s strongest advocates. By treating families with respect, dignity and value, the PTA Comunitarios have become a strong, sustainable voice to protect the rights of all children.
“Neighborhood public schools belong to their communities,” said IDRA President and CEO Dr. Maria “Cuca” Robledo Montecel. “The strength and vitality of any community is, in part, dependent upon the strength of its schools. And the reverse is true.”
In the colonias, despite the fact that most children attend academically challenged schools, the PTA Comunitarios have already made an impact. Meetings focus on important issues affecting children and how to lead and partner with schools to transform education all the way from pre-K to college. Parents examine state and local education policies and funding, discuss their children’s access to advanced courses and college readiness efforts and meet with school administrators to talk about shared concerns. In addition to providing specific education-related training for parents, the program provides home visitors – called “promotoras” or “animadoras” – to act as peer organizers and help engage families and arrange transportation networks for meetings and events.
IDRA says that previously disconnected and “thought-to-be-unconcerned” families have become “dynamic and fruitful” partners through the PTA Comunitarios. There are currently four PTA Comunitarios operating in the Rio Grande Valley to monitor the academic success of their children and others from their barrios, and they truly have improved outcomes for their children.
With support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, IDRA has launched an innovative Semillitas de Aprendizaje™ series of bilingual “big books” and readers for classroom and home use, and a professional development program for preschool teachers, early childhood centers, families and the field. These resources are used by teachers and PTA Comunitario families to foster literacy, numeracy and social-emotional development, while valuing children’s home language and culture.
Historically in the colonias, dropout rates have hovered around 50 percent, with only 10 percent of high school graduates going on to college. But in the first PTA Comunitario of 35 families, all of the children, most of whom are English-language learners, successfully graduated high school and went on to higher education. There are now 75 families in PTA Comunitarios demonstrating that effective family engagement is critical for the academic success of children. And in spite of the hard work of internal change, the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo and Donna school districts are successfully embracing this new form of family-community-school collaboration.
Based on this success, in late 2012, IDRA was selected by the U.S. Department of Education to expand development of the PTA Comunitario model in five communities in south Texas through the Investing in Innovation, or i3 initiative.
IDRA believes the PTA Comunitario model has worked because there hasn’t been an external organization simply coming in to “fix things.”
Instead, there has been a true partnership with relationships built on trust and an effort owned by the local community, inspired to become “ferocious advocates to keep schools flourishing successfully in their barrios.”