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Parents and teachers ally to ensure student success
It's a Community Thing

Rock-bottom test scores and rampant student absenteeism prompted East Austin's Zavala Elementary to join the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in the early 1990s.

Within two years, Zavala's Texas Assessment of Academic Skills scores ranked in the top half for the state. The school had nearly eliminated an 80 percent teacher turnover rate and had created an on-site health clinic for needy families.

The IAF, through its Alliance school initiative, teaches parents to work with school boards and city councils to procure curriculum changes, money for after-school programs and better police protection.

The program helps teachers and schools bring parents back into the classroom.The result is higher test scores and attendance rates.

Back to basics
Started at Morningside Middle School in Fort Worth in 1986 by a local principal and IAF, the Alliance school initiative has expanded throughout the state, with nearly 100 schools now participating in about 20 school districts.

The initiative works with schools and their surrounding communities to help improve standardized test scores, attendance rates and disciplinary problems at many previously troubled schools.

"I teach the parents [how] to run a meeting," said Claudia Santamaria, a former Zavala Elementary School teacher and an organizer for the IAF Austin branch. "I teach the parents what an agenda is. You take for granted that these parents know, and they don't."

IAF has worked since 1940 to bring about social change, cutting neighborhood violence and creating affordable housing in communities such as Chicago, where the foundation was formed.

IAF created the Alliance school initiative by bringing teachers and principals together for a door-to-door "community walk" to introduce the teachers to parents and to give parents an opportunity to voice concerns about the school and neighborhood.

With the guidance of an IAF organizer, the teachers and principal appeal to community churches and leaders to help set up meetings to teach parents how to lobby for change and improve their neighborhoods, as well as their schools.

"It's not a matter of being against the principal or being against the parent," Santamaria said. "It's a matter of coming together and realizing that we have much more power when we work together."

Morningside Middle School's TAAS performance rate was third-best out of 20 schools in Fort Worth ISD within 18 months, according to Community Organizing for Urban Schools, a report by researcher Dennis Shirley. The school had ranked last.

Moving on
IAF brought the initiative to Austin through Austin Interfaith.

"Our achievement rate was really low," Santamaria said. "Like 20 percent of my kids passed reading and math--my students in the fifth grade--and I worked really hard. I wanted to be there, but I didn't know what else to do."

Former Zavala teacher Julie Pryor said finding a way to break down the barriers between parents and teachers was difficult, but she realized parents need to know how to help their children with homework and need help navigating school bureaucracies.

"We're trying to engage our parents and have them be more engaged than just involved," she said.

Zavala mother Lourdes Zamarrón was skeptical when teachers and Austin Interfaith organizers approached her more than 20 years ago. Growing up in Mexico and East Austin, Zamarrón felt confined to her area by language and cultural barriers.

Zamarrón learned to speak English through Austin Interfaith, and the organization encouraged her to become more active in her community. Two of her children are now in college, while a third has a college degree and is working for a state representative. Zamarrón attributes their success to her involvement with Austin Interfaith.

"I really think that if it had not been because of my involvement with Austin Interfaith, I don't think that would have happened because I didn't know of any other world," Zamarrón said.

Zavala's success attracted the attention of the Texas Education Agency, which began setting aside money to fund Alliance schools. The funding helped start similar programs in other Austin schools as well as schools in San Antonio, Houston and El Paso.

Ann Holdsworth