Alliance Schools Concept Paper
Interfaith Education Fund
“Parental involvement” has become a term of indistinction, rivaling “social capital” for vagueness. We know its good; everybody wants it. But what exactly is it? And more importantly, how do you get it? Does selling popcorn in the cafeteria to raise money for a new playground qualify? Attending a parent-teacher conference? Or maybe it requires only insisting that a child complete the day’s homework.
Boston College Professor Dennis Shirley makes an important distinction in his book Community Organizing for Urban School Reform between accomodationist forms of parental involvement and transformational forms of parental engagement. Shirley defines parental involvement as passive maintenance of the existing school culture. In contrast, he cites the work of the Texas IAF organizations and the Interfaith Education Fund in the Alliance Schools Initiative as parental engagement. Shirley writes, “Parental engagement views parents as citizens in the fullest sense--change agents who can transform inner city schools and neighborhoods.”
the Alliance Schools Initiative, which currently includes over 100 campuses in
In changing the culture of a campus, organizers working with the Alliance Schools Initiative begin by teaching parents and educators the art of conversation. In contrast, public schools like most other institutions are focused on communication. The emphasis on communication, which is the unilateral transmission of information from subject to object, is a reflection of the bureaucratic, hierarchical culture of the public education system. Conversation, which involves a reciprocal exchange of ideas, debate and compromise, is relational and operates subject to subject. Conversations involve leaving oneself open to change, both acting and being acted upon. Conversation is central to the organizing strategies utilized in the Alliance Schools Initiative which are described below.
In addition to being the key tool for a relational culture of collective leadership and accountability in a public school campus, conversation is also the basis for what we call Civil Society in a community. The concept of Civil Society is an important one with respect to the Alliance Schools Initiative because in order for a public school to be most effective, it must have the support and resources of the entire community. The stakeholders in our public education system go beyond parents and educators; public education is intimately connected to the economic and societal success of the entire community. Unfortunately public schools are increasingly hard-pressed to garner support from the broader community, whether it be for reform or fiscal support. In many areas people are actively organizing against public schools, with calls for vouchers and privatization. People are no longer connected to public schools as one of the central broad-based institutions in their community, as the institution of the “common school” which not only teaches academics but also creates strong citizens. And in fact, in many communities public schools are no longer able to play that role.
Broad support for public schools will be in place only to the extent that there exists an organized constituency that is connected to the campuses. Therefore one of the most important aspects of the Alliance Schools Initiative is the building of that constituency. In connecting the campuses to the congregations and the broad-based IAF institution, the Alliance Schools Initiative builds a broad-based constituency which will not only support the public schools financially, but also tangibly in terms of developing a collective leadership both within the school and the surrounding community. This constituency will create the public space for schools to explore innovative teaching strategies and other reform efforts. However this constituency will also hold the public schools accountable for results.
schools can no longer accomplish what is necessary for long-term student
success without the active support of such a constituency. Because, although by most accounts
educational indicators are improving in this country, the requirements for
successful entry into the workplace have been increasing at a still more rapid
pace. In their book Teaching the New Basic Skills, Professors Frank Levy and
Throughout most of the life experience of today’s adults, post-secondary skills were not required to get a job with wages sufficient to raise a family. Schools were not supposed to be preparing more than a small fraction of their students for higher order learning. Unfortunately, the economy has changed so dramatically during the last two decades that without these skills, our students are doomed to a life of struggling to keep their families at or barely above the poverty line. In 1973, a man with a high school diploma earned an average of $32,320 (2001 dollars) and a man without a high school diploma earned an average of $27,260 (2001 dollars). By 2001, a man with the high school diploma earned an average of only $28,740 (2001 dollars) and a man without that educational background earned $20,680 (2001 dollars). When you compare high school graduates and drop-outs to a man with a college degree, the income disparity is even more disheartening. In 1973, a man with a college degree earned $44,580 (2001 dollars), almost $12,000 more than the high school graduate and nearly $17,000 more than the high school drop-out. By 2001, that same college graduate earned $51,420 (2001 dollars), almost $23,000 more than the high school graduate and $31,000 more than the high school drop-out.
As Levy and Murnane point out, the significance of this decline becomes still more dramatic when coupled with the information that in 1993, half of all 30-year-old men had not gone beyond high school (3).
the leaders of the IAF organizations and the Alliance Schools Initiative do not
merely see their work with public schools as a way for children to feel better
about themselves and improve their standardized test
scores. Instead, this work is about
securing the economic future of their families and communities. Conversations and research actions with
employers in our communities indicate that the quality of the available local
labor force is as much of if not more of an incentive for economic development
than tax abatements, union status, wage levels, and other popular notions
surrounding the creation of good jobs in today’s economy. Several employers in
Lessons and Future Plans
Texas IAF organizations and the Interfaith Education Fund formally began the
Alliance Schools Initiative in 1991 with less than twenty campuses. However the IAF organizations had been
working on statewide public education issues such as standards and financing
since the early 1980s. Work with
individual campuses began in 1987, at the request of a middle school principal
Over the last ten years,
participation in the
In large part, the
expansion of the
However it is important to recognize that the expansion of the Alliance Schools Initiative has gone beyond curiosity about success into the deliberate and active recruitment of new campuses by the principals, teachers and parents whose children attend school at another point within the same feeder pattern.
example, success at a middle school prompts teachers and administrators to
actively recruit the elementary campuses which send students to the middle
school. The development of the
reverse is true as well. Parents at an
statewide and regional networks of relationships operate in a similar fashion,
connecting leaders to one another at events such as the annual regional
education conference and a week-long training session for
addition to expanding to meet the request of an increasing number of public
school campuses both in
While the IEF organizer was able to work closely with these assistant principals as they entered their new positions, it is unlikely that our current resources could sustain the work with more than a small number of teachers at any one time. Yet we have come to recognize that a more systematic approach to this type of professional development would both provide better support for the faculty and perhaps enable more teachers to advance along these lines. Therefore IEF is exploring the possibility of organizing training sessions and retreats specifically for teachers and their leadership development.
These sessions would be similar in design to the Alliance Schools Principals Institute. Although resources have limited sessions to an annual basis, the Principals Institute has become a genuine training ground for principals to become educational leaders rather than administrators. With a more intensive focus, we believe that the Principals Institute could become a mechanism by which principals actually become the primary organizers of their own schools. A reorganized Principals Institute would include the opportunity for participants to receive stipends for organizing during the summer months as a way to further develop their skills and understanding of the process.
In the Alliance Schools, one of the most important questions we ask our teachers and principals is “What are you learning about learning?”. This question is important because only if they are learning can they model that behavior for their students. Teaching and learning must be reciprocal activities if students are to develop the capacity to learn throughout their lives. In the Alliance Schools we are interested in creating what Seymour Sarason terms “a productive context for teaching and learning.” The issue is also important in considering questions of retention. If education is a matter of one-way communication, teachers and principals are constantly expending energy without being energized themselves by learning through interaction with students and other adult stakeholders. This situation often leads to either a departure from the profession or a minimalist style of teaching and a top-down model of administration.
Our leaders, after years - and in some cases decades - of organizing in communities throughout the Southwest, have developed an understanding of what we call social capital. For our purposes, this social capital is the network of relationships not only among adults (as described by James Coleman) but also among institutions. Social capital is developed when institutions such as congregations, schools, unions, neighborhood associations, and so forth are not only connected to one another but also organized as a powerful network of institutions around the interests of families and communities. In order to build this kind of social capital, there must be patient financial capital available to invest in the training and development of professional organizers who are also investing in the development of community leaders. At least three to five years are required to identify, test out and develop the talents of a high-quality professional organizer.
even social capital is not always enough.
If the member institutions of the Alliance Schools Initiative are going
to exercise genuine, sustainable change within the public education system,
then they also have to be prepared to organize for power, the Spanish translation
of which is poder
= the ability to act. This is the work
of building a broad-based constituency, a constituency of organized people who
understand their own self-interests as well as their birthright as members of a
free and democratic society.
The Organizing Process
In reality the organizing process is multi-dimensional and takes on a plurality of forms. For example, individual meetings are organized throughout the process as the organizer works with a potential leader to continue his or her development. House meetings are organized in differing ways and for different purposes depending on where the collective leadership is in its development. However all of the steps outlined below are designed to carry a campus and a community closer to the development of a genuine culture of democratic education or what we call a “Community of Learners.”
Organizers working with the Alliance Schools Initiative teach leaders and potential leaders how to use the art of conversation in individual meetings. The individual meeting is a “one-on-one” conversation, our most basic and important organizing tool. These are not interviews, nor are they focused on a specific issue or project. These conversations represent an exchange of views, judgments, and commitments. They are about uncovering issues, developing relationships and cultivating leaders.
Newly identified leaders at the school and in the community are then asked to organize house meetings. These meetings may actually take place in someone’s home, or possibly in the school library or in a nearby church or synagogue. Inviting ten or fifteen people to the first meeting broadens the conversation and brings some depth to the developing agenda. Organizers conduct training sessions on how to hold effective house meetings. We have learned that a house meeting cannot deteriorate into a “gripe session,” and we have developed organizing skills to avoid that. The concerns of educators and families must be transformed into issues, which are then developed into an agenda with a vision of the future. Through these conversations leaders gain clarity about their vision and their values. House meetings allow people to discuss the issues of most importance to them and to learn that they do not face problems in isolation.
walks, or “Walks for Success” as
they are often called, are another important part of an