Pedagogy of the Organized

If you’re looking for the heart of the Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation network, you’ll find an absolute commitment to teaching and learning. The network’s founding organizer, Ernesto Cortes, Jr., once almost got himself a Ph.D., and he’s envisioned the I.A.F. network as a people’s university ever since.

Find yourself boarding a plane with Ernie, and you will not only be asked to carry a bag of books, you’ll be grilled about what you’re reading and told about what you might consider reading. The organizers and leaders are always reading and meeting to talk about what they’re reading — be it Greek history, Dostoevski, or Hannah Arendt. (You won’t find much light reading here.) Attend an action run by one of the I.A.F. network’s community organizations, and you won’t be able to leave until several leaders and organizers have asked what you thought about what you’d seen. Was Socrates in the house?

Become a leader of one of these organizations, and you’ll be involved in the organization’s dialectics of teaching and learning as they occur in conversations — the group’s legendary “one-on-ones” — and the extended conversations of house meetings. You tell your own story, teaching a piece of the story of your life. But at the same time, you are listening to yourself reconstruct your own experience in a new way, in relationship to another person or the handful of people in a house meeting. And you are also learning from their stories and teaching as you react to their stories. That is the root, the nut, the kernel of the I.A.F. experience.

So it is not surprising that eventually these conversations, these house meetings, have led to the subject of education. Out of the tens of thousands of house meetings that have taken place in mostly low-income communities and congregations of Texas, a critical mass of disgruntlement, of frustration, of anger over the education of the children of these communities percolated its way into the public conversations of the I.A.F. organizations. It began in Fort Worth in the mid-eighties, at Morningside Middle School, when leaders of the I.A.F. organization Allied Communities of Tarrant began talking to the principal and teachers about reforming the low-performing middle school some of their children attended. By adapting the same organizing processes they’d used successfully in addressing such public infrastructure problems as drainage and crime, the I.A.F. organizations began to address problems of educational infrastructure — bringing parents, teachers and principals into the same room to talk about their aspirations and needs. What happened? These people learned from each other. They also learned that together they could develop strategies that would have a positive impact on their children’s education — bringing parents into the education process, building pride in a school, raising expectations for students, teachers, principals, parents, and school districts, providing school-wide support for innovative education practices.

And in the process, they’ve taught state and school officials a few things — at least those willing to learn. They’ve learned that parents with little formal education can play pivotal roles in their children’s academic success. They’ve seen that the 112 Alliance schools have improved their TAAS scores at twice the rate of other Texas schools. Some officials may even admit they now see that shared decision-making will not destroy the Empire of Education, but may instead be a crucial building-block for the future of public education. Some have also learned that the answer for schools in low-income areas is not to abandon them by offering vouchers to their students, but to support their efforts to build communities in the schools.

And it’s important to keep teaching and learning. So, on February 28 and March 1, 1,200 parents, teachers, principals and community members met in Austin. They were there to exchange stories with each other and with eminent educators and economists (“to help us think,” said Cortes). And they were there to provide a teaching moment for legislators and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Moses. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, busloads of Alliance school leaders arrived at Austin’s Palmer Auditorium from all over the state. They heard Frank Levy, an economist from M.I.T., talk about the dangers of America’s widening income gap, saying that we are now at the end of the free-market era (which followed the Keynesian, government intervention era), and at this point, a rising tide lifts only those boats transporting a good education. U.T.–Austin’s Ray Marshall told the conferees that education is a necessary but not sufficient condition for repairing the economy: you also need to organize.

James Comer, director of the Yale Child Study Center and author of School Power, pioneered the notion in New Haven urban schools that parents in low-income communities are vital to the academic performance of their children. Comer told the convention that, when he was growing up, all the adults around him were locked in a conspiracy of support to make sure he got through school. But changes in our economy have worked against the continuation of such conspiracies, requiring more from education, and putting greater economic pressure on low-income communities. Comer argued that you have to organize parents and schools to recreate this conspiracy for every child. Finally, Richard Murnane of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and co-author with Frank Levy of Teaching the New Basic Skills: Principles for Educating Children to Thrive in a Changing Economy, came down hard on the TAAS testing that currently consumes Texas. Murnane argued for teaching children to become lifelong learners. Although it makes sense for schools to help children become familiar with the test fundamentals, Murnane said, it does not make sense to devote large amounts of time to TAAS preparation. Drilling for the TAAS test “does not create a strong foundation for the skills you need. It diminishes a child’s interest in continuing to learn. It creates incentives for the best teachers to leave.” He said it was possible, but very difficult, to improve schools with high percentages of low-income kids so those children leave with high TAAS scores and a love of learning. He sees the Alliance school network as an engine to make that happen, as it builds a constituency to resist “drill-and-kill” and to support new teaching and learning practices.

So much for the direct teaching. Each of these speakers also listened to stories from parents, teachers, and principals at Alliance schools, and reacted to what they’d heard. Ysleta Alliance schools talked about their collaboration with U.T.–El Paso, bringing university teachers into the public schools and creating a pipeline for their students to enter U.T.E.P. Representatives of Sam Houston Elementary in McAllen talked about the creation of a micro-society as an after-school program, complete with a newspaper, bank, retail stores, government, and tax collectors. Speakers from Austin Alliance schools talked about using a school district in-service day to create a convocation for fifteen Austin schools, with workshops devised and run by the Alliance school teachers and principals. The conference also broke into workshops for more intimate conversations with these speakers — to talk about innovative classroom practices and after-school programs, to talk about organizing to change a school district, and to learn the fundamentals of Alliance school organizing.

All this talking is a good start, but it would not be an I.A.F. meeting if it did not lead to action. So the next morning, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Moses and a slew of legislators appeared at the auditorium. As the legislators shuttled in and out, Moses spent most of the morning listening to Alliance school leaders tell their stories.

Richard Murnane and Moses engaged in a little on-stage tête-à-tête about the value of the TAAS test. Then, as he has before, Moses voiced his support for Alliance schools because, he said, they’ve proven they work. That’s important for these schools, because Moses’ Texas Education Agency administers an $8 million biennial grant program for schools working with community organizations to restructure the school community for increased academic success. The program was created in 1993 by the Legislature, working with the I.A.F. organizations, in response to gains made by the first Alliance schools. It began as a $2 million Investment Capital Fund, increased to $5 million in 1995, and to $8 million in 1997. Slightly less than half the schools receiving I.C.F. funding are Alliance Schools. This year the Alliance schools are asking for a hefty increase, to $25 million, as the number of Alliance schools grows and as the schools require more than the $25,000 per year provided by the fund. State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin appeared first, to say he’d sponsored past I.C.F. funding and he would be asking the Legislature for the full $25 million for the coming biennium, “because Alliance schools work.” He was followed by a stream of legislators supporting the funding increase. Standing next to Moses was House Ways and Means Chair Rene Oliveira of Brownsville, who said he hoped the I.A.F. organizations “would help part the waters.”

That afternoon, bolstered by new busloads, 2,000 Alliance school supporters stood on the Capitol steps as even more legislators, including Senators Ellis, West, Luna, Truan, Gallegos, Bernsen, Lucio, and Shapleigh pledged their support for a funding increase. It was the largest gathering at the Capitol this session. Representative Juan Solis of San Antonio yelled, “Alliance, Sí! Vouchers, No!” Several legislators pointed to the Governor’s window just above the proceedings, saying he needs to hear you.

After the rally, the Alliance school supporters fanned out through the Capitol, meeting with their legislators, doing what they do best: teaching through a little one-on-one.

Austin writer Geoff Rips, a former editor and publisher of the Observer, served as a panelist in the I.A.F. workshop devoted to changing the culture of a school district. This article was supported by a grant from the Open Society Institute’s Individual Project Fellowships Program.

Geoff Rips is a novelist and a former editor of The Texas Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST