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Alliance Schools Concept Paper

Interfaith Education Fund

Fall 2003



            “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.”

            Thus the Alliance Schools Initiative, which currently includes over 100 campuses in Texas alone, is not just about improving the existing system of public education, but is instead about changing the culture of schools and of entire neighborhoods.  Similarly, the Alliance Schools Initiative is not just about parental engagement, but is also designed to engage all of the stakeholders in public education.  We are not merely trying to engage parents as agents of change, but also teachers, principals, and other members of the community.  We are no more interested in educators passively maintaining the existing school culture than we are in having parents “participate” on those grounds.

            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. 

            Unfortunately, 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 Richard Murnane describe in detail the frustrations of mid to high-wage employers seeking a “mix of hard and soft skills” in their potential employees.  What Levy and Murnane define as “soft” are skills such as the ability to work in groups and to make effective oral and written presentations.  Interestingly, these are the kinds of skills we teach in the IAF organizations and the Alliance Schools Initiative; we describe them as part of the skills of public life.  It is particularly difficult for schools to teach these kinds of skills to students when in fact most of the adults associated with a school may not have the skills themselves.  People are more familiar with the importance of “hard” skills, such as reading, math, analysis, and problem solving, and many schools are have improved their capacity for teaching these fundamentals.  However the requirements for these hard skills continue to increase at levels “much higher than many high school graduates now attain” (Levy and Murnane, 9).

            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). 

            Thus 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 San Antonio have indicated to our leaders that they currently turn down contracts for more work because they do not have the necessary workforce.  In other words, if they could find people with the right skills they could create more jobs.

Lessons and Future Plans

            The 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 in Fort Worth.  As the local IAF organizations developed relationships with a growing number of campuses around the state, the statewide collective leadership decided to formalize the strategy as the Alliance Schools Initiative and invited the Texas Education Agency to join as a partner in 1991.  Since that time, first the Education Commissioner and, beginning in 1993, the State Legislature have provided supplemental funding for the Alliance Schools to support activities such as professional development and leadership training for parents and teachers, as well as enrichment activities and classroom innovation for students.

Over the last ten years, participation in the Alliance School organizing strategy has increased to over 100 public schools and 21 school districts in Texas.  Another 50 campuses in California and in the southwestern states are also reorganizing schools based on the Texas Alliance Schools model.  All of these schools typically serve students who are African American or Latino from low-income communities.  In the Texas Alliance Schools in 2001, almost 80 percent of the students were classified by the state as “economically disadvantaged”.

In large part, the expansion of the Alliance School strategy across Texas and other states can be attributed their success in increasing parental engagement, teacher morale, and student achievement.  Between 1997 and 2002, many of the “veteran” Alliance Schools (that is, schools in relationship with IAF organizations for five years or more) raised their Texas Education Agency’s performance ratings from “acceptable” to “recognized” and “exemplary”.  (See Figure 1.)  Across all Alliance Schools in 2001, the rate of students passing the TAAS tests increased from 2000 at more than double the pace for all students in the state.  Among Alliance Schools in 2002, the rate of students passing the TAAS tests continued to increase at a greater rate than for all students in the state.  The most dramatic increases on individual campuses ranged from 10 to 24 percent more students who passed all TAAS tests than the year before. 


Figure 1.



Table 1.     Percent Change in TAAS Pass Rate for Alliance Schools and Texas in 2000 and 2001.


All Students



Alliance Schools

All Tests

2.2 %

4.9 %


1.5 %

3.0 %


2.8 %

5.7 %


            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.

            For 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 Alliance School culture teaches middle school faculty that it would be valuable to have relationships with the faculty preparing students to enter secondary school.  Parents begin to understand that their children cannot wait until middle school to be taught by innovative, talented faculty at a campus that serves as the center of their community.

            The reverse is true as well.  Parents at an Alliance School elementary often see their children excelling only to lose ground again in secondary school.  As a result, parents begin to organize the next school their child enters, while faculty and administration from the elementary schools recruit their colleagues farther up the feeder pattern. Within the Alliance School Initiative, leaders and organizers have come to believe that a feeder pattern strategy (and ultimately a district-wide strategy) is the only way to demonstrate sustainable, long-term success over the entire life of a child in public education.  It is also the only way to create a systematic cultural change in the manner in which public education is organized and implemented.

            Alliance School leaders working together across grade levels create the relationships necessary to agitate and challenge one another to learn from a variety of experiences with public education and the broader community.  These relationships create the opportunity for parents and educators to learn from one another and think collectively and creatively about acting on behalf of their children.  And finally, these relationships, connected to the relationships of the local IAF organization, enable the leaders to organize the broad-based constituency necessary to build the power to act.

            The 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 Alliance School leaders.  In terms of building a constituency, the statewide network of Alliance Schools in Texas has been successful during each Legislative Session since 1993 in securing and increasing the financial support of the State Legislature.  The Legislature first committed $1 million to the effort, then $5 million, then $8 million, and since 1999 - $14 million biennially.  As outlined above, these funds go directly to the school campuses to support the innovations they develop through their work with the IAF organizations and the Interfaith Education Fund organizers.

            In addition to expanding to meet the request of an increasing number of public school campuses both in Texas and around the Southwest, the Interfaith Education Fund is also preparing to launch a more systematic professional development strategy for educators connected to the Alliance Schools.  As our teachers become skilled both in terms of classroom strategies and in leadership, many develop the potential to become principals.  In fact, four teachers from a single Alliance School were promoted to assistant principal positions in a single year.  Anxious to take the Alliance School culture to their new campuses, these teachers literally became educational leaders as they engaged their senior principals and teaching faculty in the Alliance School process.

            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. 

            Unfortunately, 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.
Attachment A


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.

            Neighborhood walks, or “Walks for Success” as they are often called, are another important part of an Alliance School’s culture of conversation.  In a Walk for Success, teachers, parents, church members and administrators spend a Saturday walking the streets of the neighborhood around the school, knocking on doors and engaging parents and other members of the community in conversations about the school.  In conversations of twenty to thirty minutes a two-person teams asks questions such as “What do you think about the elementary school?  Do you have children attending?  Do you know any children who go there?  What are your concerns about the school?  What do you think are its strengths?”  The strategy behind these meetings is similar to that of a more traditional “one-on-one” in that the team is trying to surface issues of concern and identify potential new leaders.  At the end of the conversation, the team invites the individual or family to participate in an upcoming meeting at the school where the community and the campus will begin to collaborate on taking action on the issues identified through conversation.

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