Parents Are Partners in Fabens

by Victor Javier Rodriguez
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XII, Number 1, May 2000, Putting the Public back into Public Schools

Picture of Estela Gallardo
Estela Gallardo is the mother of four children who recognizes the importance of being involved in her children’s schools.

Fabens, Texas, is a largely agricultural community located about 25 miles southeast of downtown El Paso, near one of the fastest-growing areas along the Texas-Mexico border. Like many other rural school districts, Fabens Independent School District faces the issue of doing more with fewer resources in its school community. However, Fabens differs from many districts in its reliance on parents and community members.

Fabens Promotes Participation through the Collaborative Action Team Process

For more than three years now, Fabens ISD has been promoting family and community participation in schools using SEDL’s Collaborative Action Team (CAT) process, which focuses on team building, team planning, and momentum generation, and identifies key factors to encourage collaboration.

SEDL’s CAT process identifies environmental factors–the characteristics of the organizing group, the accommodation of members’ needs, the influences of the school system, and community culture. It also identifies operational factors–access to local resources, mission, and communication–as key issues in engaging parents. In short, the process seeks to address the barriers to parental involvement.

Enrique Pérez, principal at Risinger Early Childhood Center (the district’s school for early childhood education and kindergarten) and facilitator for SEDL’s CAT site in Fabens, agrees that eliminating barriers is important. He adds that building trust, promoting partnerships, and creating opportunities have been crucial in the CAT process implemented in Fabens.

"We have some very fine minds in people who have a limited education," says Pérez. "As a general rule, school districts would normally not even notice these people. The way we’ve done things–through the CAT process–they get to contribute great ideas. We seek advice from our parents and in turn they’re getting some very good training to make the system work for them."

Picture of Victor Rodríguez and Augustina Olivarez
SEDL communications specialist Victor Rodríguez and Augustina Olivarez talk at a Collaborative Action Team meeting held in Fabens, Texas. Olivarez is a grand-parent who volunteers at a local school, is a CAT representative, and encourages others to become involved in the Fabens schools.

Pérez, who has been instrumental in getting parents involved in the school community, conducts CAT meetings in both Spanish and English. Language issues, as well as transportation and child care, are just a few of the barriers he tries to eliminate in order to engage parents. He also holds meetings more than once, at different times, to accommodate working parents.

"I don’t care what time of day it is, if you want parents involved you have to make some provisions for their children," he explains. "You might have to have the meeting more than once. Some will come during the school day, but you’d better find a time during the evening if you want to give everyone the opportunity to participate. Being sensitive to their needs, it’s part of the process, and this is where we had help from SEDL."

In the CAT process, a primary strategy for building team effectiveness is to build and maintain team membership that is broadly representative of the whole school community. Representative membership helps identify issues of common interest to all segments of the community and increases creative approaches to student achievement and school improvement. It also provides a pool of leaders who receive the training needed to share responsibility for collaborative action.

Parents and Community Members Participate at All Levels

While it is true that most schools welcome parent volunteers, schools must also let family members know that there are many ways they can participate in the education of their children. Fabens ISD makes an effort to ensure parental representation at all levels, from parenting and communicating to decision making and collaborating with the community.

Fabens’ Augustina Olivarez is a good example of a grandparent who serves as a volunteer at a local school and is part of the CAT partnership. Although she sees her main role as a school volunteer, her advocacy in encouraging parents to become involved is just as important as the time she spends volunteering.

"I enjoy participating because I’m interested in what goes on in the community," Olivarez says in Spanish. "I’m happy to see more young parents becoming involved, because when my children were growing up, schools weren’t as inviting as they are now. As an aside, she adds, "Besides, my husband would have never allowed me to become involved."

The cultural aspect of parent involvement is not to be taken lightly. Parents who are out of the cultural mainstream (recent immigrants to the United States, for example) may feel they are not capable of contributing to their children’s education. For this reason, schools must take the initiative to provide these parents with needed information and encouragement to engage them in meaningful work.

Take for instance Lupe Ramos, a parent actively engaged in Fabens ISD and the local CAT team. She has recently been trained to serve as a CAT facilitator.

"Lupe Ramos," observes Pérez, "has put two boys through college. She doesn’t have a college degree, but you’re talking about a highly sensitive and insightful woman. She was given basically an opportunity to look at some problems and an invitation to contribute. It’s just her fate that she doesn’t have a degree, but her contribution is of an inestimable value. Lupe has found ways to bring different sides together. Sometimes you can have that brilliance, but you also need an opportunity to put it to use."

Augustina Olivarez and Lupe Ramos are CAT members whose own children are grown but still want to participate in the schools. Other members of the Fabens team attend meetings with family in tow. Estela Gallardo, an immigrant from Mexico and a mother of four children, ages 1 to 14, brings her entire family to meetings. She also volunteers as a teacher’s aide at one of her children’s school.

"I volunteer at school because I realize how important it is to be involved," says Gallardo, who appreciates the opportunity to participate directly in her children’s education. "My oldest child went to school in Mexico, and as a parent I was not allowed to go near the classroom, let alone help the teacher in the instructional process."

"I feel my involvement has helped my children’s self-esteem. Their social skills have benefited and this helps them to learn better."

Picture of Mary Eberle with students
Fabens High School students, shown here with social worker Mary Eberle (standing), play an active role on the Fabens Collaborative Action Team.

In terms of engaging Spanish-speaking parents at school, studies have shown different results between conventional and nonconventional activities. Specific cultural knowledge is most likely not required when inviting parents to open houses, parent-teacher conferences, and other parent-information meetings. On the other hand, engaging parents from culturally diverse backgrounds in nonconventional activities (such as parents as co-teachers, shared decision making regarding curriculum, and participation on site-based management committees) requires educators to have an understanding of the cultural perspectives of the parents they want to involve.

The Fabens CAT team provides an excellent opportunity for educators to develop their own cultural skills to foster parental involvement. Terry Domínguez, a teacher at one of the local schools is a new CAT team member and is encouraged by what she sees happening at the meetings.

"This CAT process is new to me, but I’m all for engaging parents in education. I believe in going out to the community and getting their input," says Domínguez. "I’ve heard good feedback from these meetings and I expect to learn more as I continue to participate in the CAT team."

Local social worker Mary Eble, of the Kellog Community Partnership, has been involved in the Fabens CAT site for three years now. She says that the best part the CAT process is that it involves parents and makes them part of the decision making:

"The process itself is a benefit, regardless of the outcome. When you see people who don’t have the academic degree, who are nonprofessionals, who speak a different language, and you see them as equals–that’s when the process can be considered a success."

Victor Rodríguez is a SEDL communications specialist and former journalist and teacher.

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