parent engagement

How 'Comunitarios' Are Changing the Way Schools and Communities Collaborate

How familiar is this? A Spanish-speaking mother makes several trips to talk to a counselor so that her ninth-grade daughter is enrolled in algebra II. When she finally gets a meeting, the counselor tells her it’s already full. Or this: A Latino parent committee goes to a campus to have an introductory meeting with a principal and are told he’s too busy, but the parent liaison will meet with them. Or a group of parents, low-income, visit their children’s high school because its state test scores in math are very low. The head of the department tells them in passing that only 10 percent of its students can handle higher math.

Things Are Changing

The good news is that for parents and families in poor South Texas neighborhoods, things are changing. Comunitarios, family advocacy groups that are organized community-wide rather than within a single school, have formed and their purpose is to collaborate with schools to improve the success of students. Some, called comunitario PTAs, are officially affiliated with National PTA. For over 40 years, the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) has been advocating for families and children facing bigotry. We’ve been working with families to help schools become a place where their contributions are valued, where their language, income levels and immigration statuses aren’t seen as hindrances. The comunitarios are the result of that work. Comunitarios develop projects based on data and information they analyze about their schools. Their projects flow from the interests of comunitario members. Some projects are taken on among multiple comunitario groups, such as the seven currently underway in south Texas mostly comprising low-income Hispanic families. They also are connected with the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network and its working group that focuses on education.

Filling in the Blanks

A recent project emerged when, during the 2013 legislative session, the Texas state legislature diluted graduation requirements. Before the change, all high school students were required to take four years each of English, science, social studies and math, including algebra II—all key courses colleges look for in a transcript. The new requirements made several of the higher-level courses optional and set up a variety of interest-based paths. The comunitario parents were concerned about their children being steered away from college. They feared a return to weaker preparation for students who might not be considered “college material.” So the community groups decided to keep tabs on what was going on in their schools and asked themselves two questions: How were families being informed about the new requirements, and were their children being tracked for college? Last spring, the comunitarios and their sponsoring organizations created and conducted a survey across 24 school districts and 30 cities. Over 1,600 responses were collected. IDRA helped analyzed the data and create a report for the group. Then, the comunitario came together in a roundtable with community, school and district personnel participating. The report showed that few families knew about the new graduation requirements and most did not know if their children were enrolled in courses that prepared them for college. Given the lack of information on the new requirements, participating families decided to draw up plans of action. The plans of action are varied, reflecting the unique needs and concerns of each comunitario. Some host community seminars to inform additional parents of the graduation issue; some work with their schools to improve communications between parents and guidance counselors; and others are working with district and school leaders to develop a college-ready graduation plan for all students.

A Model That Works

What’s happening here in the Texas Rio Grande Valley is important; it’s true family leadership in education and is changing the way that parents, communities and schools collaborate. These communities sought their own data, created a survey, interpreted and disseminated their findings and are now taking action. With seven comunitarios at work now, these families are sharing their lessons and organizing methods to expand this model to other parts of Texas and the rest of the country. From hosting a supper for a superintendent, to standing in the street with umbrellas to let the governor know that he must dip into the rainy day fund for schools to ensure an excellent and equitable education for all children, “comunitario” families are showing leadership and creativity in connecting with schools.
Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., is a senior education associate and lead trainer at Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA). He brings extensive experience in working with school personnel, parents and students. His career in education spans five decades and has included teaching at the high school, middle school and elementary ...

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