A Quiet Revolution

It doesn’t look like the site of a revolution – even a quiet one. As self-effacing, middle-aged principal Salvador Flores stands in the doorway of fifty-year-old Palmer Elementary School greeting students and their parents, you’d be hard-pressed to imagine him a revolutionary in the restructuring of public education. But here – in these nondescript, one-story classroom wings behind a high fence in Pharr in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, just down the road from the Lloyd Bentsen family compound and due north of the colonias of Las Milpas–is the heart of an insurgent statewide effort to democratize education decision-making in Texas to improve the quality of public education.

In one of the poorest regions of the state, and of the nation, parents and teachers have taken it upon themselves to reorganize public education based on a model of democratic participation in school decision-making. Parents have moved from Xeroxing to political engagement. And, in the process, their children have achieved unprecedented academic success.

“We think we can demonstrate that public school systems can work. Not just a school, but a school system can work,” explained Ernesto Cortes, Jr., director of the Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation Network. The network’s twelve Texas community organizations have been responsible for organizing one hundred public schools in the state. These schools are characterized by shared decision-making, political action before school boards and city governments on behalf of their students, and participation in a statewide alliance that has secured increased state funding and important waivers for restructuring these self-styled “Alliance” schools.

The I.A.F. is not a newcomer to public school reform. In 1983, finding that their efforts to improve schools in their property-poor school districts continually ran aground on inequitable and inadequate state school finance formulas, I.A.F. Network organizations joined the ongoing battle over public school finance. Working with a state Select Committee on Public Education, chaired by Ross Perot, low-income parents from the I.A.F. organizations sat at the negotiating table in Austin. They also applied constituent pressure for school finance reform on legislators across the state. A special session of the Legislature then passed legislation that Texas school-finance expert Richard Lavine called “the single most progressive reform of Texas school finance.”

While the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and others continued to battle in court for greater funding equity, I.A.F. organizations turned their attention to using the new money effectively in the schools their children attended. “Money’s important,” said Ernesto Cortes, “but it’s not the only thing that matters. You’ve got to change the culture of the schools.”

I.A.F. organizations set out to make the case for more funding by demonstrating that low-income schools knew how to use the new money. “In part, we got into this business because we found stiff resistance to more equalization,” said Cortes. Fighting the growing conservative opposition to increased public-school support, I.A.F. organizations enlisted education commissioners for Governors Ann Richards and George W. Bush in a campaign to persuade the Legislature to shake loose extra millions per year to fund innovations that build parent and community engagement in schools.

“It means creating a powerful constituency that is supportive of school reform – creating a kind of civic culture which reinforces that school culture,” Cortes said. “You’ve got to have a powerful constituency. That means being able to impact decisions about resources.” Last year, following a rally by 3,000 Alliance school parents on the Capitol steps, the Legislature increased the supplemental funds available to Alliance schools.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley is in transition from the near-feudal, agricultural economy that dominated this part of the border for more than one hundred years to the global superhighway that threatens to overrun it. Nearly one million people, 90 percent of them Hispanic, have a per capita income less than half that of the U.S. average, and an unemployment rate between two and three times the national average.

For the better part of the past century, large farmers and land speculators, including Lloyd Bentsen Sr., developed and controlled a regional economy that depended upon cheap labor. Housing for this labor was most often provided by carving sections out of farmland and selling small lots without utilities to poor working people, who built their own houses on land in which they had no equity. Las Milpas, founded in 1946, is one such colonia, south of the small town of Pharr and about five miles north of the Rio Grande.

It was in Las Milpas and surrounding colonias that the political history of the Valley began to change. In 1985, Governor Mark White and Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby visited Las Milpas at the request of the fledgling community organization Valley Interfaith. Las Milpas resident Carmen Anaya, a Valley Interfaith leader, insisted that the officials walk through the mud of the recently flooded neighborhoods to experience what schoolchildren walk through each day to get to their buses. Thus began a process, guided by Valley Interfaith and other Texas Industrial Areas Foundation organizations, to bring water and wastewater systems, roads, and drainage to Las Milpas and other colonias. In 1987, with a new international bridge scheduled to open on the road south of Las Milpas, the City of Pharr annexed what had become a community of twenty-seven colonias and more than 7,000 people in order to develop a small niche in the new global marketplace.

Rosario Bustos spent most of her life in Las Milpas. Born just across the Rio Grande in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas, Bustos moved with her family to Las Milpas at about the time she entered secondary school. She graduated from P.S.J.A. (Pharr-San Juan-Alamo) High School, married, and lived in Las Milpas most of her adult life. Rosario was aware of the work of Valley Interfaith, but she wasn’t involved. Then her oldest son, Angel, became one of 150 Las Milpas children enrolled in Palmer Elementary School.

Principal Salvador Flores was waiting for her, just as he waits each morning to greet Palmer’s 485 students and their parents. Flores has the manner of a secular saint. He grew up in Zapata, a small town farther north and west on the Rio Grande, and was the only one of ten children in his family to attend college. In 1982, he was appointed principal of Palmer Elementary. The next year he became involved with the organizing efforts of Valley Interfaith and emerged as one of its early leaders.

In 1991, when Valley Interfaith leaders began to look at ways to improve their children’s schools, Palmer became the first Valley school to be organized. Palmer Elementary, located in Pharr (population 37,866), is one of 33 campuses in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district, a district serving 21,000 students from three towns. It has one of the highest percentages of low-income students among large Texas school districts. Ninety-eight percent of Palmer’s students are Hispanic, 88 percent are classified as low income, and 60 percent are identified as having limited English proficiency. With Flores’ encouragement, teachers began meeting with parents in their homes. A Valley Interfaith organizer met with parents to discuss their concerns about the school; parent involvement in the school began to increase.

But Palmer did not experience the change of school culture Cortes refers to until 1994, when the school district changed Palmer’s attendance area and added third through fifth grades to its pre-K through second-grade classes. This brought children from new parts of Las Milpas to Palmer – including Angel Bustos of the Villas del Valle colonia. With him came his mother, Rosario Bustos, who helped out in the school as much as she could. After a degenerative muscle disease made it impossible for her to continue working, Bustos devoted herself to Palmer full-time. There she joined Sylvia Morales, mother of two Palmer students, in volunteering around the school.

Sal Flores saw an opportunity in the larger student body and organized parents, and he challenged them to do more. “We used to have parents who were very, very quiet,” Flores said, “who would never speak – I would say almost timid – who now are advocates, who will stand up and tell how they feel about what they want for their children.”

He collaborated with a skilled organizer. Estela Sosa Garza is a social worker whose own education was often disrupted by the work her parents did as migrant farmworkers. In 1994 she was an organizer for Valley Interfaith. After meeting with a number of Palmer parents in their homes Sosa Garza began a series of weekly meetings with a core group of parents in the school. “We began a series of leadership development training,” she said. “What’s a school board? What’s the role of the principal? Teaching how the district’s set up. Then, just politics: how do we influence decisions? Since we don’t have money, we need to organize people. And basically it was through those forty people that we had ongoing conversations, negotiations and dialogues among themselves as to what they would prioritize.”

Flores arranged for Bustos, Morales, and two other parents to attend a statewide meeting of similar schools in 1995. The 1995 convention was the turning point for Sylvia Morales. “Once there in the convention, everything Estela told me started falling into place,” Morales said. “All the Alliance schools got together. Hearing all the testimony, how they improved on their TAAS (the state’s standardized test) and improvements in their schools and going out to their streets and talking to parents. So apparently me and Rosario were the ones who really got energized on this and we did want to do a lot of things.”

Rosario Bustos also began thinking about school in a political context. “We started in the school, you know, making little changes here and there,” she said. “We do have the power to change things. You cannot just sit there and look at what they’re doing and say, ‘Well, the school’s the school and that’s it,’ you know. And we started with the school, and then, like I said, we did things that were citywide and districtwide and statewide. We didn’t know we could do this. We didn’t know we had the power to do it.”

Palmer parents organized by Valley Interfaith also collaborated with the school’s faculty. Tracy Southwell, a tall, blonde, fifth-grade teacher from northern Minnesota, also learned from the organizing process. “When we became an Alliance school, Mr. Flores wanted us to get to know the parents, get to know the community, so we could work together,” she said. “Before that I can honestly tell you I didn’t know them. We started with home visits. That was wonderful. I’m right there working with the parents. I’ve got that relationship with them now. It’s also very important to see where some of these kids are coming from, some of the struggles they have and some of the problems they have to face, because it really does make you more compassionate. Maybe the homework isn’t done all the time, and you see they live in a house with one room and five kids and one table. A lot of these parents just don’t know where to start. And this gives them the opportunity to start. I always tell my students I need to work with their parents, we need to work together, because that’s the real world.”

The parents and teachers at Palmer work together on the campus council, allocating limited discretionary funds for supplemental classroom materials. They discuss, evaluate, and negotiate new directions in curriculum. The parents talk about what their children need while the principal and teachers talk about alternative classroom methods that may get the children what they need. As a result, unlike many Valley schools, Palmer boasts a curriculum similar to that found in many affluent suburban districts. Early childhood classes are based on Montessori methods. Balanced literacy and cooperative, project-based learning are used throughout the school. Through the extra state funding for Alliance schools, teachers have been able to receive instruction not provided by their district or regional education centers. Tracy Southwell, for instance, brought classrooms-without-walls training to her classroom, working with students to write grants and develop programs to help their communities.

Beginning with pre-kindergarten and this year extending through third grade, the school has worked with the University of Texas at Pan American to institute a two-way bilingual program, in which all students learn both English and Spanish. Each primarily English-speaking child is paired with a primarily Spanish-speaking child, and the program provides continuous assessment. This year, Flores said, 70 percent of the students are reading and writing at or above grade level in both English and Spanish by the end of the second grade. “It’s hard to tell who is English dominant and who is Spanish dominant now,” he said. “We don’t want to go back to traditional bilingual ed.”

In 1997-98, Palmer achieved “recognized” status for its TAAS scores – while emphasizing higher-level, hands-on learning rather than the drill-and-kill methods many schools use to coach students for TAAS. Last year, 74 percent passed all tests, while 87 percent passed math, 85 percent passed writing, and 80 percent passed reading.

Sal Flores is convinced there’s a direct correlation between organizing parents and teachers and increased student achievement. “Parents are more involved in the education of their children,” he said. “There’s more concern about how their child is doing. And they question us. When their child isn’t doing well, they want to know why not. They hold me accountable, too. That’s exactly the way it should be. ‘We’re working together for the child.’ That’s what I tell the parents. ‘Without you, we cannot do it.'”

Yale psychologist Seymour Sarason has written that parental involvement “does not ensure improvement in educational outcomes; it makes accountability for outcomes more widespread. That involvement has the potential for improvement of those outcomes but only if it comes to focus on contexts that make for productive learning.”

Palmer parents aren’t shy about focusing on learning in the classroom. As a member of the campus council, Sylvia Morales received reports on student achievement. “They gave us an overview of the classes, third graders, fourth graders, fifth graders, all of that,” she said. “And [Salvador Flores] lets every teacher give their own. And if one is way too low and one is too high, or if from last year you remember some things and you go, okay, if we were bad last year, how come we’re doing bad still this year? What’s going on? That type of question. And we do question a lot.” As she learned more and more about teaching and learning, Morales became increasingly involved in the classroom. Last year she was hired by the school to work as a teacher’s aide.

Estela Sosa Garza was more philosophical about the relationship between parent engagement and student success. “A lot of things come into play,” she said. “When we’re organizing, we’re beginning to look at people taking responsibility for their own problems, deciding as to whether they are going to change it or not and if so, how? [The children] see the adults in their families involved. By modeling, they’re teaching their kids. The other is, as parents really understand the complexities of the education system, I think they also begin to see, I need to do my part for my child to make it.”

Parents and teachers have lobbied the district administration successfully for remodeled classrooms and a new library. They met with district officials, conducted research on the school’s needs and costs, looked at facilities at newer schools, negotiated a set of priorities for the school, and took those to the school board and administration. When the district
anted to change plans, more than forty parents and teachers confronted district officials last year to keep them on track.

The parents consider it part of their job to educate the school board about the importance of academics. “Here in the Valley, football’s a priority,” Flores said. “I asked the parents, ‘Do you want a football game or your children going to college?’ We’re changing the culture of the district.”

“Their demands to me help me. It doesn’t slow me down,” said P.S.J.A. Superintendent William Morgan. “How can I put it? They don’t have any demand that I think is unreasonable. They want the best for their kids, and I think that’s the way it ought to be. And when I need something from them so that we can lobby something, they’re there for us. What better group of parents to have by your side, supporting your leadership, than people like Valley Interfaith? They helped us on a $50 million bond issue that got approved by our voters.”

“What’s really the most satisfying thing I’ve seen is the development of the parents as leaders,” said Salvador Flores. Rosario Bustos helped negotiate Alliance school funding with the Texas Education Commissioner and addressed a statewide convention of 2,000 people, talking about Palmer’s success. “I’ve never been shy,” Rosario Bustos admitted, “but I’ve never been this confident either.” When her husband got a job in Minnesota, Bustos left the school. But other parents immediately filled the void. Iris Urbino, mother of two Palmer students, is now directing the newly funded parent program.

Sylvia Morales is a different story. Born in Mexico, Morales had lived in Pharr since she was five years old. As the daughter of migrant farmworkers, she missed the beginning and end of every school year. Despite that, she was able to graduate from high school. But Sylvia Morales rarely said a word in public. “If you had seen Sylvia four-and-a-half years ago,” Estela Sosa Garza said, “she couldn’t stand up. You know how we start our meetings with introducing ourselves? It was very hard for her to do that. For Sylvia, the change was amazing.”

Parents aren’t the only people transformed. Last year, Palmer received a three-year federal Twenty-first Century Community Center grant of $600,000, to provide educational resources and classes for parents. In addition to teaching parents how to help their children with schoolwork, there will also be G.E.D., E.S.L., and citizenship classes, and computer literacy training. When Yolanda Castillo, the school’s parent liaison, went to the White House to accept the grant, she said she found herself thinking, “Ten years ago I was picking strawberries and cotton in Ohio, and here I am with the president.”

The political organizing to benefit the school directly also takes on other related issues. “One thing affects the other,” Salvador Flores said. “It’s like a basket weave. If buses can’t go into streets, kids miss a day of school.” In a part of the state in which school principals sit on local water boards and deputy school superintendents are mayors of towns, school issues and problems of roads, utilities, and safety become inseparable.

As Palmer clears one set of hurdles, a new set appears. Because the district is constantly growing, it is continually building new schools and changing attendance boundaries. This year, Palmer lost students from one part of Las Milpas and gained students from another part – Soldrilla and Obra Homes. Sal Flores takes it all in stride. He and Yolanda Castillo made summer home visits to the families of new students. “He sets the mood; he models,” said Castillo of Flores. “We make home visits at 6:30 or 7 o’clock at night. You never see a principal doing that. They’re out getting their hair done. Mr. Flores is really here for the children.”

This spring the school’s new library will open. But Palmer isn’t resting on its laurels. The school’s leadership is running a Parents’ Academy, designed to bring new families into the school’s decision-making community. The sessions are led by teachers, parents, Salvador Flores, and Valley Interfaith organizer Carissa Baldwin. The Academy’s curriculum includes discussions about expectations for students at each grade level, how to build a community of learners, Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, how to talk to your children about what they are learning, the implications of TAAS, how to ask open-ended questions, understanding school finance, how to identify leaders and conduct a house meeting, and how to organize for action. “Parents need to be well informed so they can hold us accountable,” Flores said.

“They need to be able to audit where they’re strong and where they’re weak, looking at the curriculum as well as the need for physical improvements,” said Carissa Baldwin. “These sessions should agitate parents in their roles as leaders in the school.”

Palmer Elementary is nearly a picture-perfect Alliance school, in which the uniting of parents, teachers, and the principal served as a catalyst for school-wide change. In this case, creating a community of trust enabled teachers and the principal to take risks, to test alternatives, to demand more resources than they might otherwise have done.

The hundred Alliance schools across the state provide some of the best arguments for public schools in what promises to be a protracted battle over school vouchers in Texas. In the past four legislative sessions, proponents of voucher programs have pointed to failing public schools, especially in low-income neighborhoods, as a justification for voucher programs that would allow students to use public tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. When they failed, San Antonio multimillionaire James Leininger funded a foundation that provided private vouchers to students who would leave San Antonio’s Edgewood I.S.D. and attend private schools there. Hundreds of low-income students left Edgewood schools, and the decline in enrollment cost the district millions in state funding. Yet Leininger lured very few students from Loma Park Elementary, an Alliance school, because of the school’s record for student achievement and parent involvement. If public schools succeed, not only in raising test scores but also in uniting parents and teachers in a fired-up political constituency for public education – what then?

A quiet revolution, taking place every morning at the schoolhouse door of one hundred Alliance schools, where someone like Salvador Flores is creating a new constituency for public schools.

Geoff Rips is a former editor of The Texas Observer. 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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