Last spring, the mother of an eighth grader living in a community just outside of Brownsville, Texas, went to the offices of her daughter’s school. A tall, strong and stern looking woman, the mother is a respectful, patient, and kind person. After three trips to the office, the mother finally got an appointment with the school’s guidance counselor.
During the meeting, the mother told the counselor that she was concerned that her daughter would not be able to get into a university upon high school graduation, and, to that end, that she wanted to be sure that her girl would be enrolled in an Algebra II class. “If she doesn’t take Algebra II, she can’t enroll in the university.”
According to the mother, the guidance counselor chuckled and said, “My dear, there are only 62 seats in the Algebra II course, and those are reserved for the very special students. You know that not all students are college material.”
Fortunately for her daughter, this mother was a member of a “Comunitario”, a community-based, family leadership group that leverages the collective wisdom of its members to create change in their children’s schools. The mother, like the others in the Comunitario, knew that her child had a right to equal treatment under the law. Her participation in the Comunitario, however, had helped the mom to understand that achieving equal treatment for her child would not happen magically. Indeed, getting her daughter “college ready” would require an extraordinary amount of effort that she was all too willing to do.
“The thing that concerns me more than anything, more than my job, more than even my health, is that my daughter get the best education there is,” commented the mother after having shared her story.
Ever since its 2008 Equal Voice for America’s Families Campaign, members of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network have continued to select education as a policy priority. Unfortunately for our region’s school children, the State of Texas has not been a willing partner in this effort. In 2011, Texas cut billions of dollars from public education programs, and, then in 2013, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law HB5, a mandate that exponentially cheapened high school graduation requirements, leaving many graduates unable to enter a university. With HB5, eighth graders (13 year olds) were expected to choose a career path, a decision that, if uninformed, could easily cripple any chance for them to escape poverty.
School districts in Texas have accommodated themselves in different ways to HB5. The bill’s requirement are so complicated that whether or not a child could enroll in an Algebra II course before graduation became the litmus test for the quality of her high school diploma. Offering Algebra II to all students is the expensive option, as it requires the school districts to hire the appropriate personnel. Most districts, in the end, made nice with the new tracking system.
One school superintendent told me that he thought it was great that the state was finally encouraging “shop” classes. “You know, so many of these kids have no business preparing for college. Being a welder is a great job, and brings in good money,” he told me.
I asked him, “Well, that may be the case, but how on earth can an 8th grader make that decision?”
“That’s the job of the parents!” he shot back.
Equal Voice leaders, however, were not so sure that parents were even aware of the choices that their 8th graders were being asked to make. With the help of the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) out of San Antonio and with the deep collaboration of RGV-EV core organizations, a survey instrument was designed to measure just how much parents knew about the consequences of HB5. Throughout the spring of 2015, over 1,600 parents from across the region were questioned about HB5.
The results were disturbing. https://magic.piktochart.com/output/5884973-equal-voice-rgv-hb5-community-survey-infographic-english
85% of those surveyed said they had little or no knowledge about the changes in Texas’ graduation plans. 80% said that they had little or no sense of the impact of HB5 on their children’s future. Two-thirds of the parents with children in middle school or high school said that they did not know which track their children were in.
The members of the Equal Voice comunitarios reflected on the results. One question that came up, again and again, was whether or not school officials were aware of just how far ranging the ignorance around HB5 was. The group decided to invite school superintendents, and local university and college officials to a regional round-table in August. A regional collective-impact group (RGV-Focus) offered their support, and plans were made.
The meeting was successful beyond expectations. Parents shared stories and school administrators shared frustrations. Both parents and school district officials talked about their personal dreams for the children of the region. At the end of the long morning, the stakeholders gathered with their peers and drew up a set of action plans designed to address, at least to a manageable degree, the great gap between what parents knew, and what they needed to know with regard to the children’s education.
The bigger issue is of course, school funding. The simple fact that there is a huge lack of school counselors will doom many of our children to a stunted educational career, simply because there was no one there to help them navigate this new way of creating a future.
In the light of this new future, there is no lack of Texans working on behalf of the children that will be left behind. A couple of weeks ago I was invited to Austin to share this experience with a group of researchers who were focused in on how to make the best out of HB5. I had gone up a day earlier to meet with a young woman who had grown up in Brownsville and was presently studying linguistics at the University of Texas. At the end of our breakfast together, I had asked her if there was anything that had happened recently that had caused her joy. She smiled, and said, “Yes! My counselor told me that my linguistics coursework could be set so that I could choose any language that I wanted. I choose Urdu!”
It is a very long way from Brownsville to the lands where Urdu is spoken, and it is a complicated path to negotiate. This young Texan, however, had had the advantage of someone helping her chart that route. What I have learned from our Comunitarios, is that some of the best navigators for children are often their parents—especially when they know the lay of the land.