The school principal’s way of working with families ripples throughout the campus. It influences whether the school welcomes parents or merely tolerates them.

Dr. Daniel King, superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District (PSJA), reflected recently on the climate he cultivates among the principals and other faculty at PSJA.

“We work simultaneously with the children and the parents, respecting them and where they come from, respecting their voice and their opinion,” he said.

Dr. Daniel P. King

Many schools have a corps of parent volunteers who may have a parent room where they prepare support materials for teachers and plan fundraising activities, parent nights and teacher recognitions. Like many districts, PSJA also has a vibrant parent education program that offers an array of adult education classes from parenting skills to self-development. But Dr. King wanted more.

“Each child has incredible potential,” said Dr. King. “We don’t know what that potential is. So our job is to continuously open the window to have that child look at all the possibilities, and we provide the necessary educational supports. A lot of it depends on building on the strengths each child has. One strength, for example, is the home.”

That belief in the potential in each child is the basis of IDRA’s Education CAFE model. ARISE (a grassroots organization) in our network calls themselves Padres Activos [Active Parents].

Their common dream is the very potential to which Dr. King refers.

IDRA Education CAFEs are based in a community organization rather than in a single school, and their sole purpose is to collaborate with schools to improve the success of students in the community. They are independent and usually rotate their meetings in community centers and schools. Members set goals and lead projects to improve teaching and learning for all children. The essential parts of an Education CAFE are: rotating, independent and collective leadership; strong school connections; and family-leadership-in-education projects. The idea started as a pilot to create a non-traditional parent-school organization.

The meetings of these groups are usually intergenerational, with complete respect for the dignity of each home, each family and their traditions, values and home language. Dr. King’s valuing lens for students extends to families in the Education CAFEs. These groups want school principals to see them just as Dr. King does.

Dr. King added: “We partner very well with our community organizations, where in some places people are fearful of them or close the door. We work with LUPE, our farmworkers union, Valley Interfaith, ARISE and our Education CAFEs.”

The Education CAFE pilot was a huge success, and the first groups continue to be active and expand into a network across Texas, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Dr. King has been a strong supporter of the approach. He actively models his welcoming of family leadership for all his administrators. Along with Dr. King’s monthly meetings with local Education CAFE members, many of the principals in the district enjoy comparable encounters. They do not perceive the families as volunteers or fundraisers, but rather as equal partners in creating excellent public neighborhood schools.

Aurelio M. Montemayor

Supportive school leaders understand that the Education CAFE family representatives want to learn about and influence educational policy and practice in their schools.

“I like the [Education CAFEs] because these parents come in, and they set the agenda,” Dr. King explained. “Most of the time we, the schools, tell the parents what we need from them so that their children succeed. It’s also important that parents tell us what they need from us.”

School principals in partnership with one of these community groups can expect a committee to approach them early in the school year to introduce themselves and share the goals of their group for the year.

Principals can also expect, and benefit from, Education CAFE members leading one or several family leadership-in-education projects throughout the year. Members will review actionable data, brought by an intermediary group at their request, and develop a project based on what they learn from the data.

For example, one group wanted to assess the strength of the dual language program in the upper elementary grades. Another group decided to find out how well the school was preparing elementary students in math. Those families periodically review the state data on student achievement in math in their neighborhood schools.

Families in the Education CAFE through the ARISE Padres Activos meet regularly with their superintendent and school principals. One regular question they discuss is: How are the students doing in reading and writing in Spanish?

“We may generate many ideas,” Dr. King added. “But many of the offerings in our parent involvement program come from what they need and what they want. We look every which way to do that. The home is an asset. So we ask, how do we build on that and how do we respect that?”

Some Education CAFEs hold yearly community events, called Mesas Comunitarias, usually held at schools with full support of administrators and staff. PSJA, ARISE and IDRA collaborate to hold one each year. Parents and students plan and carry out these local conferences to inform families about important school opportunities, such as K-12 biliteracy, dual credit classes, and dropout recovery programs that prepare students for college.

Other Education CAFEs brought families together to examine new education policies and their implications for access to advanced placement, dual credit and pre-algebra courses. Another held open hearings with school board candidates. And several Education CAFEs in the Texas Rio Grande Valley surveyed 1,600 neighbors about how the state’s new graduation plans were being implemented and their impact on poor students and students of color. When they presented their findings to school district leaders, the districts made changes to better inform families.

As a result, educators recognize how these family leadership projects benefit the school. And when carried out by the community, the measures help ensure that the schools maintain innovations even as administrators and staff change over time.

When understood and supported by a school principal and the superintendent, this kind of involvement strengthens the connection between school and community and bodes well for the future of the children at that school. These volunteers transform their neighborhood public schools as true partners with school administrators.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column by Aurelio M. Montemayor first appeared in the September 2019 newspaper of the Intercultural Development Research Association. Click here to read the original. For more information about IDRA’s Education CAFE model see the group’s infographic, “5 Steps to Start an IDRA Education CAFE,” or visit https://www.idra.org/families-and-communities/education-cafe.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD partnering with community group ARISE and the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) to host the 2nd Annual Mesa Comunitaria Parent Conference Alamo Middle School in March 2017. (Photo courtesy of PSJA ISD)