“Communitarios” — A New Approach to Family Leadership in Education

by Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed.

My organization, the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), is working to transform traditional parent involvement. We want to create a school-home partnership that supports children’s academic and social success, one that welcomes and invites families to participate who have been excluded or poorly served.

In our PTA Communitario project in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, families connect around educational issues that are important to them and their children. In place of business meetings centered on fundraising and volunteering, parents and teachers come together to have deep conversations about children’s learning.

Rather than expecting families to adapt to the school setting, the schools create settings that harmonize with and support the language, culture and environment of the home. Comunitarios are based in community organizations that are deeply rooted in their neighborhoods. All members are encouraged and supported to voice their aspirations and desires for the education of their children. In south Texas, this means communicating in the Spanish of the lower Rio Grande Valley and northern Mexico.

Although many are poor and English learners, hundreds of families have found that comunitario meetings and activities provide a space where they can advocate for excellent neighborhood public schools, where their assertiveness and strengths can come forward. As children are learning a second language, for example, their families communicate their expectations for effective and appropriate bilingual programs.

What is happening? Teachers and administrators are learning to listen to families! They see parents taking the initiative to investigate the quality of education their children are receiving. Old notions that families from these ‘colonias’ didn’t care about education are falling away. Now school districts are forming partnerships and treating these families and their organizations as equals. Even if teachers don’t fully understand the cultural background of a family, they understand that family is the number one advocate for their children and that they want the best possible education for their children.

Although educators may perceive that families’ language and traditions are different from middle-class, white social patterns, they still must respectfully listen, observe and take note of the families’ preferred ways to interact. Whether one breaks bread with, or notices unique ways of communicating, all attempts at ‘cultural understanding’ are secondary to seeing families as true partners in helping their children achieve academic and social success.

Comunitarios accomplish this by providing information to families about the educational system and how to navigate it for their children’s benefit, in a non-threatening environment that assumes families are at the center of student’s lives. In addition, the Comunitario model provides leadership growth from within, by offering families a tool to articulate and magnify their voice so that schools take note and adapt accordingly.

Although developed in rural Texas, this approach will transfer to urban, English speaking settings. Anywhere there are neighborhoods with Title 1 schools, a comunitario can be formed if there is a community organization that puts public education on the front burner. The nucleus is a few families that share the desire to have excellent neighborhood public schools for their children. The nurturing and growth come from the organizational support – the drive, intelligence and public education advocacy comes from the families. #AllMeansAll

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., Senior Education Associate, Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA)