Creating school policy for the community, by the community

Adriana Sanchez

Candelaria Patterson joined Families United for Education after seeing her son unfairly pushed out of high school.

“I knew that what happened to him was not right, and I wanted to make sure that other students didn’t have to go through the same situation,” she says.

Educators, community members, and parents like Patterson are now part of Families United for Education, a group working to improve the experience of students in Albuquerque schools. The organization quickly is becoming a symbol of unity and perseverance in Albuquerque.

In organizing parents and community members to advocate for its children, Families for United Education developed a new family engagement policy and pushed it through the Albuquerque Public Schools system to adoption.

The policy is centered on eliminating the often-adversarial relationship between schools and communities by replacing it with a more open process that engages parents and communities as key and valued resources.

The policy was in the works for more than two years and officially adopted last August. Implementation is scheduled this year.

It addresses community and parent demands for ending racism, discrimination and the alienation of people of color and marginalized sectors of student population.

Other goals include closing the academic gap that exists between European-American students and other students, as well as increasing parent participation within the school system.

Families for United Education also is advocating for training the school system staff in “understanding the root causes of inequalities,” as well as requiring the school system to “utilize the histories and cultures of our families as a foundation for education.”

The road these community members have taken to replace the older, ineffective policy was anything but easy.

Families United for Education group photoTony Watkins, an Albuquerque Public Schools coordinator and key organizer with Families for United Education, praised Everyday Democracy, a national organization based in Connecticut that provides resources for community engagement, for supporting the organization’s work.

“Everyday Democracy helped us to start our sessions of dialogues, which gave us a process for bringing together several communities and building relationships and generating data,” says Watkins.

Families for United Education then analyzed and organized the data and used it as a basis to develop the comprehensive engagement policy eventually adopted by Albuquerque Public Schools.

The policy and advocacy-styled strategies allowed Families for United Education to build bridges and eradicate barriers using methods rarely employed by local communities to address their discontent with the school system.

“There is something unique about (the leaders of) Families United for Education,” says Lorenzo Garcia, Albuquerque Public Schools board member and chair of its District Relations Committee. “They are articulate, they know how to use data, they are disciplined, and they can congratulate administrators when they do a good job.”

With its success in Albuquerque, Families United for Education is becoming a valued and requested ally in the quest to make public education in New Mexico more open and equitable.

Recently the organization contributed to two pieces of legislation introduced by Democratic state Sen. Linda M. Lopez. Senate Bill 579 would“require state agencies to review their policies and practices to ensure that they do not contribute to institutionalized racism.” Lopez also introduced a memorial (a form of legislation in New Mexico) calling for a “Student Bill of Rights,” initiated by two young people from the Southwest Organizing Project, an organization that supports Families United for Education.

Families United also played a supportive role in a memorial introduced by Democratic state Rep. Antonio (Moe) Maestas calling for a diverse school curriculum in New Mexico. The bill includes support for books that support Native American and Latino culture, such as Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, and Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 years by Bill Bigelow. These books were among several banned last year by school officials in Tucson, Ariz., when state lawmakers passed a law that removed Mexican-American Studies from its public schools.

Earlier this year, Families United also organized an Albuquerque Public Schools candidates’ forum and created report cards for each candidate based on key educational issues.

“I see this fight as being on a boat where everybody has to row to reach our destiny,” says Hanh Nguyen, a community member who has been involved with the group since its early stages. “Along the way, people will leave the boat, and others will get on and take their places. But as long as you are in the boat, you have to keep rowing,” she added.

October 9, 2013

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