As I walk into the meeting room adjacent to the Jefferson High School cafeteria, I am immediately struck by how crowded it is. I think I must be in the wrong place.
“I’m looking for the parent meeting?” I say to the woman at door wearing a Jefferson Booster Club shirt.
“The Jefferson Education Leadership Council? This is it. Go on in,” she says.
I wedge myself through the door between parents, students, teachers, and representatives from community businesses. At the front of the room, former mayor and current SAISD Board President Ed Garza is wearing a Jefferson Mustangs soccer scarf and steering the meeting.
On the agenda tonight is a presentation from the engineers, architects, and city employees charged with implementing campus renovations with monies from the 2010 Bond. They present on not only the Jefferson HS campus, but other schools in the feeder pattern, and other areas of Monticello Park, the surrounding neighborhood.
The school is serving as a hub for neighborhood activity. It’s an appropriate reminder of the scope of influence a school has. When the school thrives, the neighborhood benefits. Likewise, strong neighborhood support will enliven a school in important, lasting ways. Drawing parents into the comprehensive conversation may be the most valuable piece of all.
“This group has brought us together and given us ownership of our children’s education. The children whose parents participate do better in school,” said Francine Agueros, whose children attend Jefferson HS and Woodlawn Hills Elementary School.
As much as we all recognize its importance, parent and community involvement can be an elusive item on a school’s wish list. It’s hard to quantify, regulate and measure. Solutions are difficult to implement.
Groups like the Jefferson Education Leadership Council are one way to bridge the gap between what happens inside and outside the walls of school. Talking to parents, community members, and Garza himself, yielded a list of helpful elements for creating such a group.
1) An Elected official Leads the Charge
As a Jefferson alumnus, Garza has taken a personal interest in the Jefferson attendance zone, but his goal is to demonstrate what can be done when elected leaders use their influence to rally the community around their public schools. Community members grow weary when their desires and ideas are constantly entangled in red tape. Face time with the elected officials cuts through many layers of the bureaucracy, helping parents and community members feel that their voice has a better chance of being heard.
“It has to come from the board member, ” said Agueros.
“Mr. Garza’s very good about saying, ‘Give me your opinions,’” said President of the Jefferson Athletic Boosters Rebecca Zertuche.
Zertuche is a graduate of Leadership SAISD, which teaches its members how to engage the educational system at every level. She’s putting what she learned into practice, and has seen successes at each level, from her school board trustee on down to individual teachers and coaches.
2)The Right People in The Room
The monthly meeting brings together an elected leader, government employees, and community stakeholders on issues that concern not only the students, but the entire area. They are amazingly productive as well. Garza credits this to managing the size of the group. He says that ideally the interests of all groups (parents, neighbors, businesses, after-school organizations, teachers, district officials) are represented.
“You have to get people together who genuinely care about outcomes,” Garza said.
It’s important to find the happy place on numbers as well. Too many and it becomes inefficient to have open forum discussion. Too few and it is hard to have the right people in the room to address the issues at hand. At Jefferson, there were about 40-50 people in the room.
3) The Forum Belongs to All
The Jefferson Education Leadership Council is not intended to be an accountability forum for any one group. The dialogue is meant to go in every direction with accountability shared by all. Parents raise concerns to administration and teachers. Teachers let parents know what kind of support they need in order to do their jobs effectively. Community members offer their perspectives to elected leaders. Elected leaders draw business and non-profit leaders into participation with efforts to enhance the educational offerings within the school’s attendance zone.
“This meeting is like the citizens-to-be-heard portion of a city council meeting,” says Zertuche.
4) Parents Feel They Have Community
One reason that charter schools present strong competition to the public school system is the community of like minds that the parents find among each other. Parents, as much as students, like to be surrounded by others who value what they value. The like to know that their students will see their priorities mirrored in the families of their friends.
Private and charter schools with selective curriculum like Great Hearts or BASIS, tend to appeal to parents with similar goals for their children. The misconception is that in a public school social pluralism will leave parents feeling alone in their priorities. They fear their concerns will be drowned out by hundreds of competing values.
Garza sees this as a challenge, but one that public schools are equipped to meet.
“Competition is good. What this group is trying to do is prove that active parents can be involved in a comprehensive school,” Garza said.
Groups like the Jefferson Education Leadership Council create a community of concern. By being dialogue-driven and solution-oriented, parents realize that they are no alone in their desires for their kids, and they are exposed to people with the resources to realize those desires: teachers, community members, and their school board member.
5) High School is Crucial
Jefferson students enrolled in the Military Science and Public Service Magnet are required to attend the Jefferson Education Leadership Council meetings. They learn that public service is not just about making speeches from podiums or fighting far away battles, but engaging in the concerns of their local community.
More importantly, they see how deeply their parents and community care about their education. Zertuche and Agueros both commented on the fact that engaging at the elementary school level is much easier than in high school when kids want more independence and may resist parent and community involvement in favor of their own social networks.
But the young people do care. They do notice. And it’s a lot easier to bring middle schools and elementary schools into the conversation if they are feeding into an active and engaged high school.
If every high school in the district could serve as an effective hub for neighborhood activity and engagement, SAISD would see tremendous growth in the loyalty and enthusiasm of its families. It’s not easy, but the call is there for school board trustees, principals and those with the power to open the doors to community involvement.
The call is also to community members and parents to see themselves as part of a system, a neighborhood, a network of citizens working together. We cannot be myopic about our little piece of educational real estate if we want to see a robust education offered to every child in SAISD.
Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey, and is a frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.