Aurelio Montemayor has been organizing parents for decades. His work at the Intercultural Research Development Association, or IDRA, as a family engagement coordinator has focused on a specific type of parent engagement, known as parent empowerment.
He defines the four ways parents are typically engaged in schools as:
- As free labor and fundraisers.
- Through education programs designed to help improve parenting
- Through education programs designed for self improvement
- Through meaningful parent / caregiver empowerment
This fourth form of parent engagement – parent empowerment, is the only form that he believes leads to school wide improvement for all kids. When done well, it can serve as an important tool for equity, but it requires that all parents feel empowered.
I’m joined by parent board member, Sarah Becker, to discuss what this looks like in practice, and how people with racial or economic privilege, who often enter schools with outsized empowerment, can act as allies.
- Intercultural Research Development Association
- Chicano Movement
- No Child Left Behind
- When Middle-Class Parents Choose Urban Schools: Class, Race, and the Challenge of Equity in Public Education by Lynn Posey-Maddox
- Despite The Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools by John B. Diamond and Amanda E. Lewis
Use these links or start at our Bookshop.org storefront to support local bookstores, and send a portion of the proceeds back to us.
Join our Patreon to support this work, and connect with us and other listeners to discuss these issues even further.
The Integrated Schools Podcast was created by Courtney Mykytyn and Andrew Lefkowits.
This episode was produced by Andrew Lefkowits.
Audio editing and mixing by Andrew Lefkowits.
Music by Kevin Casey.
Better Schools Through Parent Empowerment
Andrew: Welcome to the Integrated Schools Podcast. I'm Andrew, a White dad from Denver.
Sarah: And I'm Sarah, a White mom from Houston.
Andrew: And this is “Better Schools Through Parent Empowerment”. And I'm thrilled to be joined today by Sarah. She's on the Parent Advisory Board here at Integrated Schools and has been part of the organization since it’s early days. Sarah, why don't you tell us a bit about how you got involved with Integrated Schools?
Sarah: Well, through the magic of Courtney Mykytyn, our late, great founder. It was the early days, uh, just as Integrated Schools was taking shape. My oldest daughter was enrolled at a really White-dominant Montessori magnet school that has a thousand person waiting list. Originally we felt very lucky to have gotten a spot, but kind of as we got in the school and understood the culture and some of the dynamics, the racial dynamics that were going on, we were beginning to question things. Courtney found me on Facebook, I think really randomly, and she was the first person to really validate my questions about all of it, of the things that I was seeing and tell me, No, you're not alone in thinking these and you don't, you don't have to stay at that school. Your kids don't have to stay at that school if you don't like it.
And Courtney was really the first person to give me the freedom to believe that something different was possible and the encouragement to take action, to do something about it. And so we moved our kids from the White-dominant Montessori magnet school to a very typical Houston ISD neighborhood school that is predominantly Latinx and where we are one of the handful of White families in the school.
Andrew: Yes. And you've been an integral part of the organization since then, and that's why I was so grateful when you agreed to join me for this episode about parent empowerment. And our guest today is actually someone that you've worked with in Houston for a while. Is that right?
Sarah: That's right. He is one of my favorite people. His name is Aurelio Montemayor and he works for the Intercultural Research Development Association, known in Texas as IDRA. They have a special focus on working with and advocating for Latinx and bilingual students. But he has been helping organize parents at my children's schools’ feeder pattern, which is primarily Latinx students.
He comes to meet with parents in our community every month. Um, although that has been a little bit curtailed due to COVID. His passion for parents and parent voice and education is really immediately evident when you're in the same room as him..
Andrew: Yeah. He was amazing. It was, uh, it was great to speak to him. He's had this long career that I'm sure could have moved on to other things at some point but he's still at it, organizing parents, pushing for schools to be responsive to parents. And, yeah, he seems to just like fundamentally believe that that's the path to equity, that that's the path to better schools, is that parents have to be involved and, and that the parents who are involved have to be representative of the community.
Sarah: That's right. He beats the drum for that. Parents have to be empowered, but we come in with different levels based on the structure of the school’s White supremacy culture. So his words are powerful and we also have to resist the temptation to hear him calling us, White and privileged parents, to get more involved or be more empowered. Who is empowered is also really, really important in this conversation.
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. I think that's the tension. Parent empowerment is important but which parents are empowered naturally versus which parents need to have the system be a little more accommodating in order to empower them is also important.
So let's take a listen to the conversation with Mr. Montemayor.
Aurelio Montemayor: My name is Aurelio Montemayor. I'm a Senior Education Specialist at the Intercultural Development Research Association and I've been the point person for family engagement for quite a few years here at the organization. I started in education in 1964 as a high school English teacher.
Andrew: Wow. What is IDRA?
Aurelio Montemayor: The Intercultural Development Research Association was started in 1973 by Dr. Jose Cardenas. He had been superintendent of the poorest school district in the state at that time, here in San Antonio, and he decided to start this organization to inform the people of Texas about how unjust our system was for financing our schools. That's how we started, you know, almost 50 years ago. We work in both policy, research and practice, in education.
Sarah: How did you transition from teaching to IDRA?
Aurelio Montemayor: Well, I was a high school English teacher. I grew up in Laredo, a border town, border with Mexico. And then I started teaching in Del Rio, which is a smaller border town. And I started as a teacher realizing that there were serious flaws in both how I was prepared as a teacher and what we needed to teach kids and very concerned about a lot of things.
So I became very much involved in the Chicano Movement. That was in 1968, became an activist and lost several jobs, left several towns during that period, went off and co-founded a Chicano college. And then, so I was going to go work on my PhD in California and they called me from Texas, that IDRA was starting to expand. And I came down here and I've been here since ‘75 and our work has been in teacher training. I'm the lead trainer at the organization, so I've done a lot of workshops and training of trainers, done research evaluation. But all along I, my focus became more and more family engagement and a particular form of family engagement in education that we call family leadership.
Andrew: Yeah. So you, you've worked your way being in the classroom to organizing and found yourself in this realm of family engagement. What does family engagement mean to you and why is it important?
Aurelio Montemayor: There's four major strands in parent involvement. Traditional parent involvement, if you think of the PTA model, for example, is that the parent is, is a volunteer, kind of a cheap labor pool for the school. And I say that because there's a large number of moms especially, who are intelligent and either they’re stay home moms or they work, but they also volunteer a lot for school. But they're underutilized because bringing in $1,000 of cupcakes that I sell won't really in any way modify the quality of the education the kids are getting. It won't help them advocate for a better school finance system so that the principal doesn't have to raise extra money to buy another computer or wherever it is. And it's not a bad thing and a lot of parents are glad to do it, but it doesn't lead to any collective action to improve the education in that school or school district.
Then another, another branch of parent involvement is the education of the parent to be a better parent. So you'll have workshops on how to help with the homework, discipline at home, teenagers and drugs. You know, there's a whole array of needs that parents have to be a better parent. And it's, it's not a hard sell because you push the guilt button on the parent. Are you the best parent? You know? And so, so there's nothing wrong with it and parents of all classes and races want that. But again, it's an offering that helps the individual parent become a better parent but there's no communication of those families around, Well, how do we help the, get the kids to have higher math scores, for example, or whatever it is that, that are the issues around the learning context for the children in the school?
Andrew: It doesn't drive change at the school level.
Aurelio Montemayor: No, no, not at all.
Andrew: Just at the parent and family level.
Aurelio Montemayor: Right. Then there's another aspect of parent engagement, that is adult education. So for example, schools will offer to, to a recent immigrant parents classes in English as a second language. In some places they do crafts. There's classes where parents come and they learn how to sew or do things like that. It's self-development of the adult in a variety of ways. And in many communities, there's a great need for that. Again, it's helping the individual and helping the family, but it doesn't focus on what's happening in the school and how can we improve the school.
Then the fourth branch, the one that we are solely interested in in my organization, is family leadership in education. The parents coming together around having the best possible school where our children attend and connecting as a group to do something about it. And so in our model, we want leadership but not an individualistic leadership, but a collective one where you have rotating leadership families connecting with families around it. Because the idea is to build a community around that school that pushes for excellence and for the best possible context for the children and where the families are welcomed into the school and they are part of the decision making process and those things that are appropriate for parents to be decision makers. And so that's the family leadership focus.
Andrew: That's awesome. Yeah. So I wonder like that, finding that balance between what things are the responsibility of the school and what things are the responsibility of the parent community seems like a challenge to me. I feel like at least I see a lot in, in schools in Denver, parents getting pushed out from meaningful discussions about what's happening in the school. They may not have a lot of insight into what exactly is the best math curriculum, but, but they do know whether or not their kids are getting it. How do, how do you, how do you walk that line?
Aurelio Montemayor: The thing is, first of all, educators generally, whether they're prepared to be teachers or administrators, aren't given much training or development in terms of, of authentic family engagement. You need to have a school that's not just family-friendly. In other words, parents can come in and join their children for a meal or whatever. That the school values and understands the role of the parent. That the parent is the strongest ally for those children to learn.
In other words, I as an administrator cannot be afraid of somebody who is my best ally. And yet, you find quite a few principals that are in other ways pretty well intentioned, afraid of the parent voice, afraid. You know, so that there's a separation and distrust and it's especially a serious problem with poor families, families that are economically disadvantaged, with families of color. That if the family or the parents, what experience they had in the public school system was negative, they already come somewhat not comfortable in that setting.
Sarah: So what I think I hear you saying is that a deficit mindset from the administration can continue to perpetuate harm to parents who may have already been harmed by school systems in the past. Is that right?
Aurelio Montemayor: Yeah I think the biggest, the biggest problem is a serious one and hard to handle because it has to do with the lens that you look at something through. It's just like, there were these researchers in Chicago some years back that said, You can see a neighborhood from two major points of view. You come in, you’re seeing a drug-infested, hopeless area that's, that's just a mess economically and socially, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Or you come and you say, given the situation in this neighborhood, yes, there are poor, there are problems. But look, these three ladies here are great seamstresses and this man here is a carpenter. You know, in other words, like when you start seeing the assets in a neighborhood and you look at it through that lens, you're already viewing it in a very different way than if you're looking at you through the deficit lens.
And so when schools see children from a particular neighborhood or children from a particular racial group or economic group through a particular lens, you're already tainting every judgment and everything you do about it. And, and, and so that's, that's a serious dilemma, both for the teacher in the classroom as well as for the whole family in that school. Because the first turnaround that has to happen is there is intelligence and experience in those families that I as an educator have to acknowledge and say, without romanticizing or idealizing, I mean there are problems in families but across all races and all classes. You can go to the wealthiest part of town, you could have drug abuse and, and emotional abandonment of children and all this other stuff. But money sometimes tends to buffer things. And this is not to romanticize or idealize anything. It's just this social lens that is very much embedded in our structures, including schools.
Sarah: Right. The White supremacy is baked into the system. And so once you choose to be a part of the system, it's really hard, whatever your intentions may be, or wherever you come from, to still bend the system is, is a heavy lift.
Aurelio Montemayor: But let me, let me go a little bit to the positive or solution side of this because my first love is, is people that are there as parents who said their child is going to the school. With parents, I'm always reconnecting them to their vision. You're coming together because you want all the children to learn. You want these children to have the best possible school. And you have to keep doing that because if they're very angry about what's going on, they're going to be blinded to what's connecting them and what needs to connect everybody in this system, school, family, and all of them, is we want these children to have the best and safest school possible. We want them to be prepared for college, we want to see all of them as geniuses.
One of the reasons why I'm still excited about this as, as rough as it is, is that I know that families across the board, across race and class, want their children to get a good education. Now the trick is how do I get them to come together as a community to realize that they have that common vision and goal and what can each do?
Andrew: Okay, that's interesting. I'm going to hear you saying that, that parents and, and people involved in the school community, really have some shared vision of, of what we want for our kids. But I feel like at least nationally, like what that goal is, what that common vision is, is, is really not well-defined or, or is at least like, not defined the same way that maybe a lot of communities would define.
Aurelio Montemayor: We started under No Child Left Behind this, this grading system where three strikes and you're out schools, you know, they're, they're failing as schools for so long now.
There were very good intentions and all that because those of us had been advocates for a long time had been very concerned that there are certain schools that historically were mostly African American or Latino kids or poor kids, and they were doing poorly. We knew that there had to be accountability but then when you establish an accountability system that is flawed, seriously flawed, and the best result is that the testing companies get billions of dollars. You know, you know, you say, well, Wait, there's something wrong here. But then to, totally say, Well, let the teacher be the best judge, no no. We need some kind of objective measurement because we also have had a strong history of teachers that were prejudiced and were not very good teachers for the kids we're most concerned about.
So as advocates, we know that there's been a period, almost two generations now, of teacher bashing and teachers are very angry about that. And that's right, we're not here to bash teachers. But as advocates, we're going to say, How do we know the kids are really learning? Now test industry says, We've got the tests. Yeah, yeah. BS. You know, because you know, those tests are culturally inappropriate, class inappropriate, you know, they don't show what the kid really knows. And so you need to hold that in, in your mind, but also know, I want to know that the kids at this school are learning and how do we have evidence of that?
Sarah: So there was some good intent behind No Child Left Behind, but maybe the ways that it has actually been implemented with the tests we're using today, aren't really telling us what we need to know about what's actually happening in school.
Aurelio Montemayor: Yeah after No Child Left Behind established these strong norms and the states adopted them, we started seeing that parents needed appropriate information but also had to figure out, coming together with the teachers and administrators, how can we make sure that the children are learning? And as a teacher, I'll tell you, it's not easy, but it can be done, once you can get yourself outside of the premise that it's that culture, that language, and that class, that’s where the problem is.
You know, without ignoring that poverty does bring special problems, at the same time, I as a teacher cannot ascribe the failure of the kids simply because the family is poor and I can't do anything about it.
Andrew: Yeah, it feels like in the past, at least the, the answer to this was not to kind of change the perception that we have of parents or of students or of communities, but rather just to, you know, change the demographic makeup of the schools.
Aurelio Montemayor: We saw in the integration process from ‘54 to the present, that one solution for integration was, Okay, the White families are leaving. So let's create these schools that are very special and have good teachers and that'll bring the, the middle class White kids together with the poor kids, the kids of color, and that'll help the poor kids, you know? The dilemma there was that you drain all the regular schools to bring your, your best math, science teachers. And so here we have our pre-med school, nothing wrong with that, but you're weakening the regular high schools. And it's again the premise that you have to bring in the White middle-class, get into the school for the poor kid to learn.
We knew that you could create a good school by putting a glass bell jar over it and saying, Okay, we're going to let kids with good math and science scores come in. We have the best math and science teachers teaching here. We had it all. You have a glass bell jar over this nice campus. We called it a magnet school. You have these dramatically different schools that have become very popular but you start then reducing your interest in the larger population. All of the other kids. In other words, you're still not figuring out how to take the regular school where you have the regular mix of kids and making it an excellent school. ‘Cause what you need to do is make sure that every neighborhood public school is excellent and it can be done when there is the will, the public will, in terms of the funding of it and the, and the will to make sure that, that the kids are taught in the manner that best helps them learn.
And so in family leadership, we need to keep bringing up these issues and have families have to take a hard look at what needs to happen.
Andrew: It seems like, it seems like one of the themes here is that, is that it really matters that you have an empowered parent community to be able to make sure that these decisions that are happening are in the best interest for the community. Whether that's, how do you set up a dual language program? How do you make sure that the kids are learning the things that we think are important for them to learn without relying on testing? Because there are so many systems in place higher up from, you know, school board level to state level, that are maybe not able to, or not willing to, focus on this parent empowerment thing, that it's really important for parents to be empowered.
If it matters that parents are empowered, why does it matter who makes up that parent group, who is empowered? Because I think in a lot of particularly newly gentrifying neighborhoods, schools that are beginning to see an increase in White and/or privileged families, that those families come with the assumption that they can take those reins and be the empowered parent community. And I'm wondering if you, if you can talk a bit about why it matters that that empowered parent community be representative of the community.
Aurelio Montemayor: Well, I come from certain premises and certain values that are important. And I do know that historically the voice and the power of the family that happens to be poor or wage earning or of color or from a certain neighborhood, has never had the strength of value that that of middle-class professional. Across race. But, but there's also obviously a race color to it. And so these families in this neighborhood that are blue collar and/or poor, have to have equal access and information to make sure that they are really sitting at the table as equals. That is the family engagement. And as part of the village, you families, what do you think? You know, what do you think? I remember one year during the No Child Left Behind period, we were invited to work in terms of the parent involvement piece with a very large high school in one of the school districts in El Paso.
We were working with the parents and we had developed this website that gave them information about math scores and other stuff. And so as they were seeing how their school was doing, they saw that over 50% of the sophomores that had just taken the math test were flunking it. And so the parents saw that. Most of them were Spanish speaking parents, it was a border community, and they said, Well let's do a survey in our, with some of the families. So they created a survey. They said the first one is if, if the student is, doesn't understand a concept, the teacher teaches it in a different way and they had a scale of one to five, to always to never, and stuff like that.
Another one is if a student has questions, the questions are answered. And then they had other questions,they had two open ended questions. What helps my student learn math? What blocks my student from learning math, my child. They surveyed about a hundred families. It was done bilingually. Most of the surveys were in Spanish, were done in Spanish, and a sample of students. Well, the results of that survey led to the professional development being modified, so that all the teachers teaching math were kind of alerted to the fact that, number one, if a student did not grasp a concept, you had to figure out several other ways of teaching it. Even when we go to tutoring after school, we have the same teachers teaching you the same way. So we're not getting the algebra concepts. And then teachers were responding, saying, Well, it's too abstract for these kids, it's too abstract for these kids. In other words, rather than change how you teach it, you keep teaching it the way that that 10% can learn it. And those are the bright ones and all the others are just dumb.
Andrew: It's the kid's fault.
Aurelio Montemayor: Yeah. It's the kid's fault, you know? And so I'm giving that as an example as how you empower parents who might never understand algebra or teach it, but understand certain things that are important for them. They know when the, when their child is getting turned off and bored with school, you know? And so that's very valuable information from your teacher. It might, may be uncomfortable because they'd have to change my lesson plan, I have to come out with a bigger bag of tricks in terms of how to teach. And, and so that, that's how parents can influence curriculum and manage your instruction and curriculum and things like that without having to make them little teachers at home because the research, for example, that is done in terms of parents working with the kids on their homework, the general scores for the class don't go up anymore than if parents don't work with the homework. In other words, it's a mixed bag because I think the notion of making the parent the little teacher at home is somewhat flawed.
Sarah: So, I think the survey sounds really amazing and this idea of, even if parents aren't curriculum experts or aren't pedagogy experts, they obviously, we believe they still have value to offer and they're experts in their children. I can tell you from my own experience, right, I've seen a very clear difference coming from a school where there was a concentration of Whiteness, a concentration of affluence, it was very different to a school where that's not the case, where we're one of a handful of White families and you know, a lot of kids who are living in poverty. The way that the principals in both of those schools interact with the community is very different. At our first school, there was a sense of the principal has some accountability, right? Even if it's just getting up in a meeting and answering tough questions, she has some kind of accountability to the parents.
Whereas I feel like at the school that we're at, that doesn't exist. So I'm wondering, do you think that this model of parent engagement that you're talking about of parent empowerment, can parents work together to help change that? If the school leader doesn't intrinsically have that or doesn't come to the job having that, is that something that parents can help change?
Aurelio Montemayor: Yes. Let me give you several caveats for it to really work. First of all, it's labor intensive and it, you have to look at it over a period of time. When you focus on building community of families around these issues, even as you face here-and-now problems, you have to keep your eye on, on maintaining that connection and increasing the number of families in that neighborhood or that area, or the families whose children go to a particular school, to stay connected with each other.
Sometimes you'll have a family friendly school or a principal that's really open to what we're talking about, which is family leadership, family involvement and, and the raising of the hard questions and all the other stuff. But most of the time, principals don't feel comfortable with that. So you need to, whether they're comfortable or not to, to have an equal relationship with a collection of families, a group of families. And those families insist on being heard and that their questions and their solutions be given attention to. Sarah, you're right, if you're a middle-class professional, certainly if you're in a White suburb, they're quite attentive to you ‘cause they know that you'll take them to court like that if they’re doing something-
Andrew: Right. Or, or I'm going to pull them out.
Aurelio Montemayor: Yeah, I'm taking, I'm taking them out. Yeah. But before that, I'm going to go to the school board and embarrass the hell out of you, you know, whatever. And so when a principal and a school devalues the power of those parents, does not allow for that voice to be heard, you already have a challenge. Now it can be overcome because bringing families together around having a good school is not hard. Because you, you always start with that conversation. You go back to that conversation saying, why are we here? Why is it important that a parent be heard? You know, and, and especially those ladies who were never asked that question, to have answered and be listened to. And I say, ladies, because 99% of the participants in this effort, sadly are women, mostly mothers.
But at the same time there has to be one element that's very important in the coming together as that there'd be critical dialogue, which means people talk, are listened t,o and they listen to the others, that there be equal airtime. And that's a hard one to manage. In other words, because somebody always manages to take over or there's a repetition of the beefs of the complaints and it becomes, they're coming for therapy. They don't know it, but they're coming for therapy because, This principal threw me out...
Aurelio Montemayor: You know? And so it eats up a lot of time. There's nothing wrong with it. And, you know, you have to figure out how to, how can I interrupt that without being insulting. Because for the first time somebody listening to them, but when you hear the same story six times at six continuous meetings, you know everybody's getting bored with it, you know? And so that's, that's a challenge.
There has to be an external facilitator or somebody who doesn't get submerged into the issues and keeps focusing on, Okay, we have a plan. You're going to work on it. This is hard. There's going to be a negative reaction. How do we go beyond that? But also be attentive to each other, be connected to each other, because the stronger the connection is of the families, the longer the relationship is going to last. And it has last several years, you know? The building of the power comes from the connection over time. And it is time consuming and frustrating and many battles will be lost. And so you have to keep everybody together.
It's like, you know, they, they go with a battering ram to tear the door down and get rid of the principal and it doesn't work, you know? And so they're going to give up or stuff like that. So yeah, you have to keep bringing everybody together over, We all want a good education for our kids. We're here and we're going to connect with each other. We're going to listen to each other. You know, it's not easy.
Sarah: It's not easy. I know I've heard you talk about the importance of alliances in school change work, across race specifically. Why are alliances important and have you seen any common traps that White people can fall into when they're participating in alliances?
Aurelio Montemayor: Guilt, first of all, some are unawarely racist. And so you have to call that when it comes up. You know, some- sometimes there's somebody that comes from a resourced background or a middle class background, will have a very patronizing attitude, very loving, very caring, but patronizing of, of parents that have less or less education or less resources. And so you're really sweet. But you're not interacting as these are individuals, that are thinking individuals, that are intelligent individuals, and that have power with them already. So if you're White, middle class or wealthy, you can be a great ally. Just be aware of that sometimes you're not aware of, of the privilege you're coming from. But at the same time, any cause, any liberation cause has always had allies. Even though I might have experienced bigotry against Mexicans and Mexican Americans in a very personal way, I cannot imagine that whatever successes we have had with laws, with policy, with everything, has come about simply because it was Mexicans doing it.
Now, I do know that there has to be a historical acknowledgement of what we've contributed that's excluded from our textbooks. That's a different issue. But in terms of allies. You have allies in many ways all over the place and they're very important. As long as in the process, the power and strength of the community is not diminished. In other words, that in the process, an ally understands, I have to be a catalyst of support. So as soon as possible, let's make sure that it's Mrs. Garcia, not Ms. Becker, talking.
But at the same time, know that you have to persist in the battle, don't let guilt keep you from doing something. The quality of introspection and self-assessment is very important. Not as a guilt producing practice, but simply back away from your action and you know, and say, Let me follow my breath. What's happening here? What's happening here? Because these are tough battles and your feelings are involved, and your family and the, it's always complex. So as long as you can step away, have a critical friend or significant other says, You know what, check out what you just said or what you just did. You know?
But also we as adults, and it's hard in the middle of, of, of, of battle in action, is you have to have some kind of a meditative process. Something that gets you back into some distance. Especially when you're being attacked, especially the more the defecation hit the ventilator, the more you have to pull away, and say, Whoa, wait a minute, wait, and then go back into the battle. Because, you know, it is a battle and you know, and it hurts when you get criticized and when the door gets slammed, all that happens because it's a long battle.
Andrew: Yeah. I think the importance of seeing the assets versus the deficits keeps, keeps sort of circling here because we need teachers to see assets in the kids versus deficits. But I think there's also that aspect in terms of the community building that has to happen for there to be effective, empowered parents. That as parents, we also have to see each other's assets and recognize that we can't do this with, with just ourselves. That we actually need a group of parents to be empowered.
And that requires seeing those assets that everybody's bringing. And I'm wondering if, if in your experience, you've noticed places where the ways that White and/or privileged people think about community engagement, think about what it means to be a, a good involved parent in a school, maybe come into conflict with being able to see those other assets in the community.
Aurelio Montemayor: I already mentioned one, but it's, it's, it's, it's a big problem. Certainly historically in PTA. ‘Cause, you know, PTA started with really powerful intentions. It's the oldest and largest parent organization in the country and how it started, in different locations in the States, was mothers coming together around wanting their kids to have a good education and being true partners with schools. But, you know, at some point in the ‘50s, the fundraising took over and then you'd go to the annual conferences and 75% of the exhibitors who are actually funding that conference because they paid an exhibit were about fundraising. So it became this tradition. And so I think that the notion that my biggest value is to show up at meetings and to raise money for this school, is a very strong one to, to counteract. As an advocate for excellent public schools, I want to see the power of the parents influencing the quality of the instruction, the quality of the curriculum, the way the school is, is helping kids learn. So that's the parent engagement that I see as having the most effect.
Andrew: Yeah. I, I wonder about making sure that the investment of time feels valuable. ‘Cause I see a lot here, you know, particularly in a neighborhood that, you know, is gentrifying, that housing prices are changing rapidly, people are feeling displaced. That big picture, educational issues, systemic educational issues, issues that take many years to fix, particularly in a system that has forever largely ignored the voice of marginalized communities, that people feel like, why should I invest my time? I've got so many other things to worry about. And if this is a five year project to make this school or this set of schools better and, and I'm not sure that I can be living in this neighborhood in six months. And I know that my parents cared about this and the system never listened to them. Their parents cared about this, the system ever listened to them. Why am I going to show up and give my time when I could be doing so many other things that feel more useful or more likely to, to lead to improvement for my family, if I've sort of given up on the system?
Aurelio Montemayor: We're facing that in Houston, but for example, in South Texas, the Valley, there's more stability in terms of those very poor communities. There's, it's been a long time before they going to be gentrified. And yet I have colleagues working in Detroit or Chicago, they're facing that very difficult situation. Your, your organizing work is going to be different in each, in each community. I think though that when you connect with families over time, that for whatever reason, can stick around in that neighborhood and are wanting to stick around, you're going to persist. Because it takes a certain kind of commitment, that says, I'm in it for the long haul. I’m in it for the long haul.
And part of it, I've seen happen just because of the relationship, the love that emerges around these families who might not other-, otherwise break bread together or anything else because they're connecting with each other. It's families connecting with the school and with each other over time for the benefit of the children. It happens, but it's a tough one. It's a tough one. Anywhere where you start seeing the deterioration of a neighborhood that then is flipped because people come in, young professionals or whatever, and they, they gentrify it, it's going to radically change things in that neighborhood and those schools.
Sarah: Okay. Aurelio, so our audience is mostly privileged families, and a lot of us are making the decision to intentionally enroll kids either in their neighborhood school or schools where they're not the majority. What's your advice to them about how to be allies in this work? How to show up. What, what they need to hear?
Aurelio Montemayor: I think that the future of our country, both socially and economically, will come from it becoming a truer democracy than it has been in the past. And the public school is the salad bowl where we have to mix it all up. And that's the only place it can happen. To the degree that you work for and advocate that every neighborhood public school is excellent, supporting the public school system to become stronger, to be well financed, to become equitable, diverse, all those other things, to that degree, the future of this country will be better. Be conscious that what you do for the public school system is extremely important, is key to the maintaining, not just of economic stability, although part of that comes into it, it's also that we as, as a society, it can overcome the, the, the bigotry that comes from class, from race, from gender, all those things.
Your support and your decisions that affect when you vote, how you vote, that you are part of a public will that wants to tax itself so that its schools are well funded and especially the funds to schools where poor children are attending. To the degree that you support that, you are supporting a healthy country, a healthy democracy.
If your children are in a public school, do not consider your children as being the ones that take special value to that school. All children are important, all children, whether they speak English or not, wherever they come from what, however they look, are important and all families are important. So if you are a middle class White family, consider how your children, consider that if they're going to become leaders, that the only way they're going to be good leaders, is if they have mixed it up and if they've been in a truly democratic context as they're learning. ‘Cause that's where, you know, across race, class, and gender, what it's like and where you have to start seeing the potential in your peers. Because I know what it was like to be considered a bright child in Laredo, Texas in the ‘50s and it did not prepare me to be a good teacher. It was also a lie. It's not that I was dumb, it's just that I was smart in the ways that school considered smartness.
I was a bookworm, you know, we were poor, but my parents had very strong notions about education. My dad came from Mexico, but he was self-taught. He, he taught himself English by doing crossword puzzles. When I was a college freshman, and I'd come home and I was writing an essay, I'd say, Dad, give me a synonym for this word, and he'd give me five like that in very broken English, you know? So I was very privileged in my, in my upbringing, I was fully bilingual, you know, even though in Mexic, they would make fun of my Spanish, but you know, I had privileges that it took me a while to realize, Oh, no, I'm not dumb. But the smartness that was attributed to me was a different kind of smartness that other kids have. And a teacher has to access those different intelligences, you know?
I'll never forget an example of, of, of this working with parents who had just gotten the letter from school that was saying, in fact, the kids in that school were, were, were not achieving in math. So they said, okay, we're going to form a committee and so they finally had a meeting with the math department. The lady who was the head of the math department in that high school, as an aside, told one of these ladies saying, No, señora, no más del 10% de los estudiantes de esta escuela pueden manejar álgebra. Not more than 10% of the students in this school can handle algebra. That was the point of view of the math department. So when they came back and reported that and I threw it out, a couple of the ladies were being kind of, Well, maybe it's our fault because we don't have an education. And the other ladies jumped on and said, No, no, no, no, no, no, something else, that attitude is wrong.
And most of those ladies were from those neighborhoods. They grew up in the Valley. They were teaching, they were fully bilingual there. That's why they could communicate well with these families, but they already had that frame in their mind that only one out of 10 of the students in this high school could really have handled that algebra II, forget a PreCal, you know.
Andrew: And if, right. If you, if you start there, then when nine kids don't succeed, you're like, Yeah, see, this is exactly what I expected. Of course they aren't succeeding. Not, We need to do something different. The system is working exactly as I expected it.
Sarah: As it was designed to.
Aurelio Montemayor: Yeah, and that systemic regularity is a killer. Because an individual can say, Look, I'm not prejudiced. I love these people, but...
Sarah: Go look
Andrew: 10 of them can do...
Aurelio Montemayor: Look, scores, look and look at their scores. Look at their scores.
Andrew: Yeah. Well, it, it, it's just so, it's lovely to hear your passion for it after a remarkably long career. I'm sure you could have moved on to any other things, but to see you're still so passionate about empowering parents, it, it, it warms my heart, gives me a little bit of hope. So I really thank you for coming on and for sharing all your expertise with us.
Aurelio Montemayor: I feel honored. Thank you for the time to talk with you.
Andrew: Thanks to Mr. Montemayor. You know, we actually recorded this conversation over a year ago, I think. Before the pandemic had even started. Oh, well, that's fine, like the pandemic is starting. Maybe we'll just sit on this for a couple of weeks until we flattened the curve. And then we can, uh, you know, when life is back to normal, put this out and here we are Sarah, a year and...
Sarah: Forever ago, a lifetime ago. Little did we know. So long ago. But I'm really glad that we're getting to share it now, as we start thinking about heading back to school in person, hopefully next year. I think there is a real opportunity to reflect on how parents are empowered in schools.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, I think there's been this big shift in the relationship between schools and parents over the past year, right? Schools have had to rely so much more on parents with kids at home rather than in the building and I I do think there's an opportunity at least to, to think about these four ways that Mr. Montemayor pointed out of how parents typically are engaged in schools, right?
This, like, either it's fundraising, it’s educating parents on parenting, Ii's educating parents for themselves, and then there's this family empowerment, which is really what he's focused on. And it, it feels like fundraising, that first piece is, is that's at least what comes to my mind immediately when I think of a school with engaged parents, right, is a school that raises a lot of money because the parents love the school and they show up.
Sarah: I feel like this is the default for White families. I mean, I know it's my default, like that's what we're socialized, as a marker of a good parent when we show up in schools in general, but especially in schools that we know are underserved. So when we were at the White dominant Montessori magnet school, as I'll call it, that had a PTO that was raising hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. And as Lynn Posey-Maddox discusses in her book about how PTOs can easily become professionalized, raising money can certainly be a full-time job. To the point where there's a whole industry of businesses who will help PTOs raise money, take a cut for themselves, who actually profit off of the inequitable school system that we have because they know parents are so desperate to get money and resources into their children's schools.
Andrew: Right. They see the discrepancies. Here's this school, that's got four former grant writers who are now stay-at-home mothers who are going to work full time to raise money for the school. And they're like, Oh crap, I can't do that. What I can do is hire this company to come and do the work for me.
Sarah: Yeah. When even the fundraising becomes too much. So, the school that we were at was entertaining bringing in one of these companies called Boosterthon and what they do is run a Fun Run, kind of this seminal event at the end of a multi-week experience where they have staffers on campus every day coming in to hype up the kids and give them prizes and check in on how many fundraising phone calls they've made the night before. It just very much sounded like a corporate sales environment and a lot less like a, uh, you know, a sweet little Montessori school.
Andrew: A school. A Montessori school at that.
Sarah: And I just remember, you know, as members of the community at the time, we pushed back really hard, it just seemed to go against all the values, especially in a Montessori school of like no extrinsic rewards. And just a general, like this is a Title 1 school in a district that is educating a lot of kids in poverty, if you don't have a family that can give money, or a network of people that you can call, how does that make you feel when there's a staffer every day showing up to your classroom?
And I think to, to their credit that year, the school did something a little bit different and, you know, did their own Fun Run locally, but I think the bigger point is that we can get on this train that is almost impossible to stop if we're not careful. And really do lots of damage and not even pay attention to our own stated values because we can just get so wrapped up in what we've been taught is a good parent. You know, that the money is so needed and just, and I don't know, we can lose sight of a lot of things very quickly.
Andrew: Yeah. And I mean, and that part is a real, right. Like, schools are underfunded. Like it's, it's not like schools are sitting there with, with all of the resources they need. It's easy to, to make the leap from schools are underfunded to I know what I should do about it, is hire Boosterthon come in and and raise me some money.
Sarah: And I'm a White person with resources. Isn't this an obvious use? Isn't this an obvious connection? And I don't think the answer is no, never, ever do fundraising. That's not what Integrated Schools is saying. What we're saying is do it in community and make sure that school-wide decisions like this are done with a representative body of the community of parents and families.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, I think that fundraising focus is definitely problematic. And I think it also makes it hard to look at other ways that parents can be involved. I think that's one of the things I appreciated so much about Mr. Montemayor’s focus on parent empowerment. That like, sure fundraising is fine but like it's not going to fundamentally change the education that the kids at the school are getting.
What is, is actually empowering parents to, you know, have a voice and to be able to speak up and say, This is what my kids need.
Sarah: Absolutely. And this is where I wish Aurelio had maybe gone a little bit harder. We know that White and/or privileged parents already enter schools with lots of empowerment. And if we're not careful, that can lead to taking over, eating up all the other bandwidth available, you know, for everybody.
Andrew: Yeah. Whatever time or energy the school, the principal, the leadership has to spend on parent empowerment, it is easy for us White and privileged folks to just take that all up because we walk in assuming that we are, that we are empowered. That the chool needs to listen to us in a way that is not, not the same for other people.
Sarah: That’s right.
Andrew: Thinking about the lessons that Mr. Montemayor shared, you know, he-, he's got such great experience and such great advice for teachers and for school leaders and this real focus on the good that can come when parents are empowered. But I think, you know, at the end he talks about supporting the institution of public education, supporting funding of schools, and supporting those structures that allow for parent empowerment. And that feels like a great place for our audience to focus.
Sarah: That's right. One of the things that I've been thinking about a lot lately is our model of organizing within Integrated Schools and really how traditional organizing, the goal is to gain power, and then use it to change things, you know, usually policy, but to make change.
And our model of organizing is different than that. We, yes, we are trying to grow a movement, but we're not trying to grow power. We are actually trying to be aware of the power that we already hold. And divest of it, share it, not concentrate it further. And so it's just a very different way of, it's organizing, but it's with a spin.
Andrew: Yeah. That's such a great framing for, for what we are doing. All of the structures of organizing are set up to, well the measure of success is how much power you've gained, how many new people are listening to you, and how many people who are making decisions are paying attention to what you have to say. And on the one hand, like we, we, we want more people to attention to what we’re saying, but not to use it for our own empowerment. Yeah, to divest power.
Sarah: It's kind of an upside down model.
Andrew: Yeah. And I think this is where, you know, thinking about the other thing that Mr. Montemayor talked about so much, was this, this change in perceptions that's so important. That we have to see value in communities that exist, we have, we have to see value in students, we have to find a way to not just talk about like, Well how do we leverage those things ,but actually really, truly internalize that and see those things as valuable. And that's where I think his work has been so powerful.
Sarah: Absolutely. I know for me, he's been a real model of listening. Like, I feel like the first step to that is listening, kind of with your whole heart and we have to push back on the cultural narrative that Black and Latinx families don't care, aren't invested, or don't value education. I, I feel like that was really ingrained in me as a White person. And one of the things that really helped me change and moved me a lot was reading the book Despite The Best Intentions, which was a past Integrated Schools book club pick. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend. Dr. Lewis and Dr. Diamond break down all the research that really proves that this is just a racist, untrue trope and I think we have to just be really careful and do a lot of work on ourselves to make sure we aren't bringing that narrative with us when we enter multiracial parents spaces. Because I think if we are, if we haven't unpacked that, you know, that will come out in our actions in some way or another.
Andrew: Right. Yeah. There's like one step, which is like, Oh no, all, all kids deserve good things. But if you even enter with that mindset and assume that, but Black and Brown parents don't actually care that much about it, how can you not slip into White saviorism? How can you not say, I know what's best to try to fix this. I'm going to call the, call the book, what's it called, Bookathon?
Andrew: I'm going to call the Boosterthon people and say like, Hey, come on. ‘Cause I know, I know what's best and then, yeah, you lose that that community, that relationship. And it's, it's hard I think, like you said it certainly was my, my understanding of what it means to be a good parent, of what it means to be a good involved parent at a school, was how can you get involved in fundraising and that was always sort of baked in. And that's hard to push back on but it's, it's important. I think that's the message from Mr. Montemayor, is like, That's fine, do that or don't do that, it's sort of irrelevant. ‘Cause what's actually relevant is how do we actually get to equitable schools, how do we get to a better future for all our kids and it’s gotta be through parent empowerment.
Sarah: That's right. So I think the question is how can we make space for those conversations? And I think a lot of that time, that means just being quiet so that other people can say, and we get the gift of being able to listen. And then we're much better informed about how to advocate. It's not us driving the bus.
Andrew: That's beautiful. Thank you, Sarah. Thank you for all you do for Integrated Schools and thank you for being here.
Sarah: Thanks for having me.
Andrew: How is parent involvement going in your schools? Have you seen it working well? Have you seen disasters? Let us know, [email protected] or on social media @IntegratedSchools. Or join the conversation on Patreon. You can join us for more conversation about this and help support the work. Keep us ad-free. Patreon.com/IntegratedSchools.
If you joined one of our recent book clubs, you may recognize Sarah’s voice. She is one of the co-facilitators of our book club. Our upcoming session in July, reading Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us, still has spots available. There’s a link to register in the show notes.
And as always, I’m grateful to be in this with you as I try to know better and do better. See you next time.