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With the adoption of substantial changes to Texas high school curricula in 2013 (known as House Bill 5 or HB5), a central question for Texas policymakers, education and business leaders, families, and students is how HB5 will impact college readiness and student success in Texas.

In order to understand how familiar the community was with the new high school graduation requirements in its first year of implementation, the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network (a network of ten community-based organizations focused on social change through civic engagement) and its Education Working Group administered a survey to more than 1,600 parents and community members who have children in 24 public schools across 30 cities and towns in the Valley.

Lourdes Flores, President of ARISE Support Center and chair of the RGV Equal Voice Network Education Working Group, explained: “After listening to different stories of our communities… and having personal experience, we feared that our children could get lost… that, at the end of four years, they would not be ready to enter college. This concerned us as a community group. So we decided to conduct a survey that would give us information about the understanding in the community of HB5.”

The Intercultural Development Research Association analyzed the survey data, which showed that the majority of parents (85 percent) knew little, if anything at all, about Texas’ graduation plans and tracking procedures. And 66 percent of parents who had children in either middle school or high school did not know which graduation plan would prepare their child for a four-year university. (The full report is available online at http://budurl.com/EVRGVrptPDF.)

These findings prompted the group to organize a second community-wide bilingual convening, known as Mesa Comunitaria, in August of 2015, at the South Texas College campus in Weslaco, Texas (the first was held in 2014). This event drew more than 120 participants who included parents, members of community organizations, school district superintendents and family engagement staff, and college representatives representing 16 school districts. Among those present were members of the seven Comunitario PTAs that IDRA has been working with in the Rio Grande Valley area.

During the first half of the event, community members, parents, and school representatives shared their experiences in terms of high school graduation requirements. Some highlights from the documentation of the community stories emphasized the following.

•    Family involvement is critical. Discussions reinforced the value and importance of family and parent involvement in education. Several noted common barriers to participation, including not receiving the invitation from the schools (either because the communication is in English or is only web-based) and lack of reliable transportation.
•    More information is needed. There was a concern of lack of information, either because school staff do not have it or because it is not communicated effectively. Several noted that ARISE, Comunitario PTAs, and IDRA as alternative sources of information.
•    College-readiness is a priority. Participants stressed the importance of college-readiness. Some observed that school counselors were spread too thin or were even discouraging their children from a college track.
•    Mesa Comunitaria attendees then drafted action plans with strategies for community-based organizations and school staff that required the following.
•    Changing the way information is shared. All of the action plans involved changing the way information is shared with families in order to reach a broader audience in ways that are meaningful and effective. Some examples include having counselors host interactive workshops with parents and students, sharing information at community social events, and using a variety of media outlets (e.g., social media, press, radio, TV, mass text messages, videos, website).
•    Improving communication with schools. Participants expressed a desire to have good communication with school representatives. They suggested inviting teachers and counselors to become members of the Comunitario PTAs; collaborating with parent centers and the Texas Education Service Center in Region 1; visiting schools; and communicating directly with counselors, district administrators and superintendents.
•    Taking community action. In particular, the community-based organizations committed to playing a larger role themselves in helping to disseminate information by integrating educational components into their current community programming.

Community-led initiatives, such as the Mesa Comunitaria, are an embodiment of IDRA’s Family Leadership in Education Principles, which – among other elements – state: “Family leadership is most powerful at improving education for all children when collective efforts create solutions for the common good.”

After participating in the Mesa Comunitaria, participants, including school staff, reported that they were more familiar with the high school graduation requirements than they were before the gathering. Participants also found the event useful for strengthening strategic partnerships and were able to identify clear action plans to better inform parents about the policy change and its implications for their children. Additionally, parents reported feeling more comfortable with reaching out to school staff to discuss the high school requirements as a result of participating in the Mesa Comunitaria.

In the next year, the different community groups and Comunitario PTAs will implement the strategies developed in their respective action plans. Some organizations have already begun planning more targeted gatherings similar to Mesa Comunitaria in partnership with their local school districts.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column, authored by Sofia Bahena, is the first in a three-part series the Rio Grande Guardian will be publishing over the coming week that focuses on the work of ARISE (A Resource in Service for Equality) and the RGV Equal Voice Network in the field of education. All three articles were produced by the Intercultural Development Research Association based in San Antonio. Part Two, authored by Aurelio M. Montemayor, will be published on Monday, June 6, 2016.

Editor’s Note: The main photo accompanying this guest column was taken by RGV Equal Voice Network weaver Michael Seifert at at Mesa Comunitaria held by the group at South Texas College in Weslaco, Texas, in August, 2015.

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