Monday, June 23, 2014

Witnessing a PTA Comunitario Meeting - Josie D. Cortez - Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA)

April 15, 2014 The instructions were clear: meet at Cesar Chavez Elementary School at 5:30 on Wednesday for the ARISE-Las Milpas PTA Comunitario meeting. I google-mapped the location and found it was only 10 minutes from my McAllen hotel. The drive took me through a number of twists and turns, starting with expensive neighborhoods surrounding the McAllen country club, then winding through more moderate and modest homes. In ten minutes, I had driven from the McAllen Independent School District to the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD. PSJA ISD has consistently been in the news for its extraordinary transformation from low-performing schools to a national model of Early College High Schools, among other accomplishments. What makes this even more extraordinary is what you can’t see on the map—the fact that these schools are in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, with traditionally underserved border communities and colonias, many lacking basic infrastructure. What is also not visible on the map is the abundance of hard-working families, their communities, and grassroots organizations that serve them. ARISE-Las Milpas is one such a grassroots community-based organization made up of women and men who dedicate their lives to lifting their communities. Arriving at the school by 5:15, I expected it to be what most schools look like at 5:15 on a Wednesday—quiet, with perhaps an administrator, a few school staff, and the custodians. I double-checked my watch—the time had to be wrong. At 5:15, the school was bustling with students, teachers, parents, and administrators. I met the principal, Mr. Roel Faz, who explained there was afterschool tutoring, and a number of extracurricular activities going on such as dance and chess clubs. Entering the cafeteria for the PTA Comunitario meeting were about 25 families, parents and little ones, some in strollers, some with their brothers and sisters, all representing their Las Milpas neighborhood. All interested in finding out more about their children’s school, and how they could support their children’s education. As a parent, I can’t remember how many PTA meetings I attended but I do remember “support” always took the form of fundraising; baking cookies and cupcakes, selling everything from chicks to cotton candy at the school fairs, and despite my keen interest in my child’s academic progress, academics was never part of the PTA meetings. My concerns and opinions about such matters were never welcomed. This PTA Comunitario meeting was different from anything I had experienced. While this was taking place at a school, this was clearly community-led. At 5:35, the PTA Comunitario president, Ms. Nasaria Garcia, asked IDRA’s Aurelio Montemayor if they should start the meeting. Aurelio (the “father” of the PTA Comunitario concept), quickly told her she should decide, not him. This was their meeting. He (and we from IDRA) were there to support them. Ms. Garcia took the microphone on the stage and confidently called the meeting to order. Another PTA Comunitario member, Ms. Esperanza Berrones, read the previous meeting’s minutes. Then the deputy superintendent was introduced. I had just met Mr. Garcia and both he and Principal Faz seemed quiet and unassuming, professional and welcoming. He began to speak in Spanish first mentioning that the superintendent, Dr. Daniel King, had planned on speaking to the families but like many parents juggling commitments and priorities, his daughter’s recital scheduled at the same time called him away. He asked his deputy superintendent, Mr. Narciso Garcia, if he would address the gathering. Mr. Garcia began speaking about his son, now 17 years old. As Mr. Garcia’s career choices took him to different schools, so did his son’s schooling. His son followed him to PSJA ISD when his father was an administrator, then on to a charter school where his father served as principal for two years, on to La Villa ISD as a superintendent, and back to PSJA ISD where his father became deputy superintendent. Mr. Garcia recalled the charter school experience, in particular, as a personally difficult one. Noticing his son was unhappy, bored, and despondent; he knew that he needed to make a change. He admitted what all parents hate to admit: that sometimes, parents make mistakes. The charter school had been just that—a mistake. He had believed the charter school would prepare his son for college and career. He told from an insider’s view what his experience had been. His son wasn’t being prepared for college, college courses weren’t even being offered. He found out that, unlike public schools, charter schools systematically cull their enrollment if students are “different.” If they don’t behave a certain way or keep their grades up or if they need special support such as English Learners often do, parents are told that “their child’s uniform doesn’t fit.” They are told to leave. That didn’t sit well with Mr. Garcia, particularly because he had been one of those “different” students years ago. He spoke of a photograph that he hangs in his office. It’s a picture of him standing with his parents, and younger brother. They are standing with some baskets of tomatoes they had picked as migrant workers. He keeps it in his Deputy Superintendent’s office and told us that “where you start isn’t where you have to end up.” With his voice breaking with emotion, he said that as parents, we have to say, “Aquí es donde se rompe la cadena, [Here is where the chain breaks].” And the way to break that chain is through education. You could hear a pin drop as he spoke. Even the youngest child was quiet, somehow sensing that something important was being said. Mr. Garcia composed himself, and went on to say that PSJA ISD educates all children, and their early college high schools give students a leg up on college hours. As an example, Mr. Garcia’s 17-year old son is a junior at PSJA now and has already earned about 72 college hours. At $600 a college credit hour, that has already saved his family about $43,000. When his son goes to college, he’ll begin as a junior. There were gasps heard, followed by applause. Mr. Garcia then asked Mr. Faz to share some highlights of Cesar Chavez Elementary. The principal spoke of the robotics class now being offered, along with the chess club that was headed to Corpus Christi for the regional competition, and how every child is supported with tutoring so they don’t fall behind. In the three years as principal, Cesar Chavez has improved in student academic achievement ratings, going from unacceptable to recognized status, and is aiming for more. Quoting his school’s namesake, Mr. Faz’ final words to the families were “Sí se puede.” As Mr. Garcia thanked the families and the PTA Comunitario, he left them with a profound and heartfelt commitment. He told everyone that while he had one son, and Dr. King had several children, in truth, they both had 32,000 children. They know that they are entrusted with all of PSJA’s children; what they want for their own children is what they want for all children. To cap off the meeting, the Cesar Chavez Dance Team took to the stage. About a dozen little girls and two (very brave and perhaps very wise) little boys danced into the hearts of everyone gathered. As the meeting drew to an end, Ms. Garcia asked for another round of applause for Mr. Garcia and Mr. Faz. People lined up to have their picture taken with them, thanking them for their words and actions. As we left the school building, I turned to see a picture of Cesar Chavez and thought he would be proud, Sí se puede.

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