This past weekend I attended the Summer Leadership Training conference provided by the Texas PTA in Austin, TX. Thousands participated and it was difficult to choose which sessions to attend: so many were of great interest. One that I did attend was on Parent Involvement, a presentation by a representative of the Texas Education Agency and the state board Parent Involvement lead for Texas PTA. The excellent presentation was well attended. I was introduced to the group as a PIRC director and provider of services to schools.
One incident stays with me. I had made a comment to the group at large about sensitivity to families that held two or more jobs, single parent homes and families that spoke a language other than English. At the end of the session quite a few participants came up to me to ask for contact information and also to ask questions. A Latina local PTA officer asked me about Spanish speaking mothers who she would see on campus joining their children for lunch or taking their children to school and picking them up in the afternoon, but she would not see them at PTA meetings. Yet they didn't seem to be easily accessible for her to invite to participate.
I counseled that she establish a relationship with them, initially just greeting and asking how their family was doing...how their children were doing in school. I advised that she hold back on recruiting them to be school volunteers or to become PTA members.
I said: Instead of approaching them with a 'sales pitch' become an acquaintance, concerned about the education of their children, and eventually a trusted friend. I peppered my conversation with Spanish and gave snippets of how I establish that kind of relationship with the families I come in contact with. She didn't speak much Spanish with me but clearly understood everything I said. Even if her Spanish was not as strong as her own parents', she obviously had enough facility with the language to communicate with the parents she wanted to connect with on her campus.
"Buenos días señora ¿como esta? ¿Como están los niños? (Good morning, maam, how are you? How are the children?).
I continued: As you establish these 'qualitative' relationships, then you can identify the 'live wires', the ones that are centers of communication within their own social circles. As each of these "emerging leaders" becomes an active participant, volunteer and PTA member, (and in time, if you persist, they will) she will bring others with her and also take information to many who might not ever attend a PTA meeting but are acutely interested in the education of their children and want the information the school can offer through these 'intermediaries'.
The Latina PTA leader seemed to have an "aha" moment. She agreed that the PTA traditional approaches that worked with most middle-class English-speaking families were not working with the ladies in question. She agreed that digging into her own family traditions, culture and informal ways of communicating gave her a new (but actually very old) way of conducting outreach with recent immigrant and Spanish speaking families. I don't know how she will fare, but she left smiling and promised to stay in email contact with me.