|COMM-ORG Papers 2005||
Can Community and Education Organizing Improve Inner-City Schools?
Norman J. Glickman and Corianne P. Scally
Disinvestment, outmigration, abandoned property, and other manifestations of decline continue to plague inner-city communities. Low-income, predominantly minority, families have been concentrated in high-poverty urban neighborhoods, while the suburbs become increasingly whiter and wealthier (Wilson 1987; Kingsley and Pettit 2002, 2003; Jargowsky 2003; Katz 2004).1 Massey and Denton (1993) call this enduring phenomenon of residential segregation “the American apartheid.”
These forces of decline have whittled away at inner-city school attendance, funding and, ultimately, student achievement. Achievement gaps between rich and poor, black and white, and cities and suburbs persist, and in some cases have even widened (Orfield 2001). Public school student enrollment among fourth-graders was 58 percent white nationwide in 2003. In a representative sample of large central cities, however, 70 percent were black and Hispanic.2 Similarly, the number of fourth-grade students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch was dramatically higher in cities: 69 percent, as opposed to 44 percent nationally (Lutkus et al. 2003). Linked to these demographic phenomena are relatively low scores on achievement tests in central cities.
These conditions are of great concern to many in our cities, including students, parents, and community residents, neighborhood institutions, and the schools themselves. In fact, good schools are an important component of healthy, economically strong communities. They increase the attractiveness of neighborhoods to new families who seek advancement for their children, and offer chances for upward mobility among existing residents (Center for Community Change 2005). Economists have found schools to be part of the bundle of amenities that families consider in their housing decisions. As such, exemplary schools play a large role in increasing real estate prices. For example, Black (1999) and several others3 show that higher scores on standardized tests are correlated with higher real estate prices in the surrounding neighborhood as new families move in to take advantage of good schools. Healthy housing markets generally encourage new retail development to serve new residents and generally mean additional local jobs. Such economic development means higher local tax revenues and more funds for schools, as increased property tax revenues that finance public education.
However, instead of viewing one another as natural allies or as mutual victims of disenfranchisement with similar stakes in the vitality of the neighborhood, communities and schools have sometimes developed antagonist relationships. School staff and administrators often view parents and communities as deficient in providing proper learning environments for students. From their perspective, “the community” is part of the problem. Educators usually want parents, community organizations, churches, and other local actors to stay out of the way and let teaching professionals do what they know best—educate children (Gold, Simon, and Brown 2002; Mediratta and Fruchter 2001).
Community members, on the other hand, blame schools for their children’s consistently inferior academic performance. Past negative experiences with teachers and school administration keep parents at arm’s length. Families may also feel too intimidated to make demands of more educated and well-versed school professionals, viewing an educator’s credentials as more important than their own knowledge of what is right for their children. Immigrants and non-English speakers often lack the means and confidence to communicate their values in ways that school staff will understand and respect. As a result, families with children in school, and the larger community as a whole, remain silent in the face of increasing bureaucratic control and low achievement (Brewster and Railsback 2003a, 2003b).
A long-used model of building community power through alliances and collective action—community organizing—has been refocused to make schools more responsive to community needs and to transform them into allies rather than adversaries. In this new branch of organizing—called “education organizing”—community-based organizations (CBOs) advocate for bottom-up decision-making and school accountability to parents and communities based on developing power and trust within urban neighborhoods (Gold et al. 2004).4 The challenges that these groups face are daunting. While the communities are losing jobs and housing, schools face high turnover among teachers and students, inadequate facilities, and students ill prepared for academic work. Despite these obstacles, this nascent movement has already yielded a broad range of results: from increased school safety, to new facilities and resources, to greater social capital and relational trust within communities and schools (Bryk and Schneider 2003; Shirley 1997, 2002; Warren 2001).
In what follows, we explore the ways that education organizing brings communities and schools together for the dual purposes of rebuilding communities and improving education. We present an overview of the growing experience of education organizing, tracking the results of efforts through analysis of school performance and evaluation data. We also rely on interviews with educators and organizers to assess the impact of community involvement in schools on both building community and improving education.
We first discuss the historic roots of community and education organizing and theories of change describing the steps used to gain community and school improvements. Next, we outline the various problems facing urban communities and their schools that make improvements, especially those measured through standardized testing, so difficult. We then develop indicators to assess how well organizing groups have done despite the obstacles they encounter, exploring available data on test scores and other standards of school and community improvement. We illustrate our argument with a detailed look at some local affiliates of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a preeminent network of community organizers. Finally, we draw conclusions about the usefulness of education organizing in improving both communities and schools. We find that while these groups are not completely reshaping the face of American public education, they seem to be affecting some change.
Community organizing took shape in the 1960s with the emergence of antipoverty programs and the evolution of the civil rights movement. Some organizers recruited disenfranchised voters in the South; others brought together poor people in cities, mostly to confront issues such as poor housing and lack of decent jobs. The 1960s-vintage community organizations were comprehensive, combining political organizing, housing, economic development, and other elements of community building. For a time, especially in the 1980s, organizing declined in popularity in comparison to “bricks and sticks” organizations that attracted funding and political support, such as community development corporations (CDCs). In the last decade, however, community development has come full circle, with comprehensive organizations reemerging as central to this movement, including a simultaneous resurgence of community organizing (Stoecker 1997a, 1997b; Bratt 1997; Keating 1997). National groups such as the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), and the Pacific Institute for Community Organizations (PICO) continue to work with poor people across the nation to improve conditions through grassroots organizing.5 Many independent, local organizers are also at work on campaigns for living wages, affordable housing, and fighting predatory lending practices within low-income communities (Merrifield 2002; Squires 2003).
Much research has been devoted to understanding community organizing and developing theories of change, which detail how organizing leads to more-empowered communities. These theories outline the cyclical process of “how groups believe their actions will, over time, create broad lasting societal change” (Mediratta 2004, 17). In what follows, we adopt and expand upon one such theory developed by Gold and others (2004). We first apply it to community organizing in general, then more specifically to education organizing. We articulate both theories in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Community Organizing and Education Organizing Models
Figure 1 shows the ways that community-based organizations help catalyze civic engagement within under-represented communities. These groups pull people together to identify issues of concern to the community at large, such as reducing crime, creating jobs, making housing more affordable and available, and increasing access to quality healthcare and education. Getting people to talk together and build relationships over community-wide issues help develop trust and establish shared values. This process develops what Putnam (2000) labels social capital.6 By strengthening ties within neighborhoods, CBO organizers help foster bonding social capital—a network of friendships and trust among neighbors and co-parishioners—a kind of social glue that holds people together. As the neighborhood finds its voice, organizers help members reach out to form alliances with other groups—to people across town who may be interested in the same or different issues—thus creating bridging social capital.
Once groups identify and agree upon the issues of greatest importance to them, they work toward indigenous leadership development to increase the community’s ability to address problems on their own and get their voices heard. As these organizations define their issues and develop leaders, they build political power. Poor people can often take on the forces of city hall or the statehouse and win political victories. Writing about IAF, Cortes (1994) says “when people learn through politics to work with each other, supporting one another's projects, a trust emerges that goes beyond the barriers of race, ethnicity, income, and geography: we have found that we can rebuild community by reconstructing democracy.”
Community groups demand public accountability from public officials in addressing community needs. Accountability comes in the form of “commitments made in public that obligate a wide range of stakeholders…to follow through on their promises…” (Gold, Simon, and Brown 2002, 17). One common method of pressuring officials to address local needs is through public accountability sessions, where they listen to community concerns and are asked to sign agreements before a large assembly of their constituents. Altogether, this iterative process leads to greater community capacity—the ability to solve problems collectively to help the community identify needs and secure the resources needed to address them (Glickman and Servon 1998; Chaskin et al. 2001).
Education organizing emerged as a distinct subset of community organizing in the late 1980s, as organizing groups increasingly identified inadequate schools as a key issue facing their neighborhoods. Today, there are about 200 groups focusing on issues such as school safety, overcrowded classrooms, deteriorating buildings with few modern amenities, poor student performance, and low teacher expectations and quality compared to schools in wealthier neighborhoods (Mediratta and Fruchter 2001). Many education-organizing groups are affiliated with the national networks mentioned above, such as Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), a PICO affiliate, and Austin Interfaith, part of Texas IAF. In addition, many others have arisen independently, such as Mothers On the Move in the Bronx, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago, and the Alliance Organizing Project in Philadelphia (Mediratta and Karp 2001; Gold, Simon, and Brown 2002; Mediratta and Fruchter 2003).
While individual organizations and their strategies may differ, they have enough similarities to posit a theory of change that describes, in general, how they hope to achieve their goals through education organizing (Figure 1). Mobilizing around issues unique to education entails some of the same elements as community organizing that we discussed earlier: building social capital, developing leadership and local power, and demanding public accountability. In addition, it introduces the idea of building school-community connections: bringing parents, schools, churches, elected officials and others together to act upon common education concerns. Through this technique, parents and schools simultaneously become resources for one another, sharing decision-making, and taking joint ownership of the success of the school and its students.
While organizing brings schools and communities together, it affects them in different ways. As shown in Figure 1, education organizing can bring about greater community capacity to identify problems and resolve them, increase community participation in school functions and programs, and bring better service integration between schools and other public facilities. Goals for schools include:
Many obstacles complicate this model of school and community change. Residential segregation, poverty, social class and cultural differences, health problems, household mobility, and other problems muddy the process. These factors make it difficult to isolate the impact of organizing from other factors affecting schools (Mediratta 2004; Rothstein 2004). They also call into question the adequacy of test scores as a primary measurement of learning and progress among inner-city children (Rothstein 2004; Wright 2002). We discuss these constraints here before turning our attention in Section 4 to what education organizing groups have actually achieved in spite of such barriers.
shows that standardized tests do not accurately measure the
achievements of poor, minority children for a variety of reasons. Social
and differences in child
substantial roles in achievement, more so for reading than in math.
Middle-class parents are more likely to read to their children and
engage them in conversation than working class and poor parents. As a
result, middle-class, white children come to school better prepared
in basic skills than poorer, oftentimes minority, students. This is
indicated by test score gaps between whites and blacks, as documented
in Figures 2 and 3.
Figure 2: Fourth Grade Math Achievement Gap by Race, Geography, and Eligibility for Free/Reduced-Price Lunch, 2003
Lutkus and Weiner 2003
Figure 3: Fourth Grade Reading Achievement Gap by Race, Geography, and Eligibility for Free/Reduced-Price Lunch, 2002
Source: Lutkus et al. 2003
For instance, white students score at the 50th percentile for math, while blacks score only in the 23rd percentile in standardized tests (Rothstein 2002). Without basic skills, minority students have great difficulty moving forward later and are less likely to gain proficiency (Rothstein 2004).
Health differences also affect learning. Children who cannot afford eyeglasses will be hard-pressed to read classroom blackboards or their books. Similarly, lack of medical and dental care cause poor children to miss school. Lead poisoning and asthma, endemic to many inner-city neighborhoods, also play important roles in learning problems and result in lower test scores. Finally, poor nutrition and lower birth weights among poor children can stunt their learning potential (Rothstein 2004).
High levels of household mobility (often due to lack of affordable housing, job instability, unemployment, and homelessness) disproportionately affect the attendance records and scores of poor children. A General Accounting Office (1994) report found that one-sixth of all third graders had already attended at least three different schools. The study revealed greater mobility for children who are low-income, inner-city residents, and/or have limited English proficiency. High mobility rates correlate with lower achievement status, grade promotion rates, and higher drop out rates for those children. A more recent study confirmed that low-income, minority students are hardest hit by switching schools, and change schools most frequently. If blacks were mobile at the same lower rate as white students, 14 percent of the black-white achievement gap would disappear; similarly, reduced mobility would close the gap by 8 percent between Hispanics and whites (Hanushek, Kain, and Rivkin 2004).
The net result of these compounded problems is that low-income, minority, and urban students continue to perform poorly on standardized tests. Using the 2002 National Assessment of Education Performance (NAEP), Figures 2 and 3 illustrate the achievement gaps between whites and blacks, whites and Hispanics, and non-poor and poor students. On average, minority and poor students scored at least 20 points less on math. In many large central cities, such as Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Houston, and Los Angeles, the gap was even greater (Figure 2). Reading scores were even worse, with many cities showing approximately 30-point gaps for minority students—nearly 60 points in Atlanta and Washington D.C. for blacks (Figure 3).
Recently, “high-stakes testing”—in which schools, teachers, and students who do poorly on standardized tests are penalized—has gained significant attention, largely because of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Due to increased testing, coupled with the persistent achievement gaps discussed above, many poor, minority schools receive both stigmatizing labels, such as “low-performing,” and sanctions for failing to improve (Orfield 2001). However, the reality of multiple external factors described above shed doubt on the utility of standardized tests as performance measures for individual students or schools as a whole.
Many observers are skeptical that these tests measure actual knowledge, pointing instead to differences in test-taking ability. Critics fault pressures to “teach to the test” with taking valuable classroom time away from more meaningful instruction. As a result, McNeil (2000) and others claim that tests reduce the quality of education in all schools. Experts also question whether the type of skills measured through standardized tests are indeed those students need to master in order to achieve success in life. In Texas, teachers must decide whether to have bilingual students take the Spanish or English version of the statewide test, knowing that students will score higher on Spanish, but need to learn English as a more important life strategy (Laughlin 2005). Tests also change so frequently that it is also difficult to identify whether improvements in scores reflect a change in learning or changes in the structure and questions of the test (McNeil 2000, 2001; Orfield and Kornhaber 2001; Rothstein 2004; Firestone, Schorr, and Monfils 2004). Heubert (2001, 180) concludes that “tests do not produce improved teaching and learning any more than a thermometer reduces fever.”
Despite numerous obstacles, organizers have been relentless in their efforts to change schools and communities for the better. Through case studies, interviews, surveys, school data analysis, and program evaluations, researchers have found organizing groups winning gains in many arenas. In Figures 4 and 5, we expand the community outcomes (community capacity, community participation, and service integration) and school outcomes (student achievement, school climate, curriculum and instruction, governance and accountability, and equity) listed in Figure 1 to include measurement indicators and examples. Our research findings on these outcomes are quite similar to those of a survey by Mediratta and Fruchter (2001) of 66 education-organizing groups. They found that groups do not pursue all goals and outcomes with equal attention. The most popular goal was improving school climate (45), followed closely by governance and accountability (38), curriculum and instruction (33), and equity (32). Far fewer groups targeted service integration (8) and community participation (6), while none pursued student achievement as a separate strategy, viewing it most likely as the foundation of every strategy. (The survey did not break out community capacity separately).
In this section, we discuss the findings of a broad array of studies, supplemented by our analysis of primary data, participant observation, and interviews. We provide examples of both success and failures, and try to explore the above survey results, using the indicators presented in Figures 4 and 5.
Figure 4: Community Outcomes,
Indicators, and Examples
Figure 5: School Outcomes, Indicators, and Examples
Abbreviations: See Figure 4
Note that we do not mean this to be an exhaustive review of education organizing achievements and weaknesses. Instead, we want this to serve as initial evidence of the diverse impacts, be they small or large, that educating organizing is having on communities and schools.
Educational organizing enhances community capacity by increasing “the ability of communities to meet multiple needs” (Mediratta and Fruchter 2001, 44). Newly developed social capital, leadership, power, and public accountability can be mobilized to tackle other issues facing communities. For instance, while organizing schools, members of Mothers on the Move (MOM) had to confronted concerns around neighborhood safety and violence. They eventually expanded their activities to address those pressing problems and got more community residents involved in their campaigns as a result (Mediratta and Karp 2003). Parent leaders trained by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) worked on neighborhood safety, property taxes, zoning, immigration, health insurance, and other issues (Blanc et al. 2002). Students organized through New York ACORN schools have joined campaigns against predatory lending and environmental racism, and have successfully mobilized to secure local jobs because of classroom teaching on career ladders and job interviews. (Simon, Pickron-Davis, and Brown 2002). Things that could slow or jeopardize these gains include an over-reliance on professional organizers to do the work without transferring leadership skills to community residents (Fisher 1994). In addition, the movement can lose momentum through the attrition of both parents and students, as children graduate (Mediratta and Karp 2003).
Education organizing strives to increase community participation in schools by increasing parental presence in schools, offering more adult learning opportunities, and getting more volunteers for after-school programs and special events. For example, LSNA created the Parent-Teacher Mentor Program, pairing parents with teachers in the classroom to assist with learning and discipline.7 In Philadelphia, parents involved in the Alliance Organizing Project (AOP) participated in new after-school programs and Parent Leadership Teams (Gold, Pickron-Davis, and Brown 2002). This type of participation can be threatened by tokenism, however, where parents are given menial tasks to keep them busy, rather than important and rewarding roles to fill (Shirley 1997, 2002).
Many organizing groups are working towards greater service integration within their communities. They encourage the co-location of other vital community services within school buildings and better coordination of school activities and needs with other community service providers. For example, LSNA established Community Learning Centers within six schools in their community, opening the schools up after hours to offer homework assistance, adult education including GED and ESL classes, cultural programs and health services (Blanc et al. 2002). While many communities need these types of programs, it appears that few groups are pursuing them, or perhaps there is a greater rate of failure in winning such services in schools.
The top priority of most organizing groups is to improve student achievement. There are many ways of measuring changes in achievement, including absolute gains in test scores, the relative narrowing of gaps between different races and income groups, moving more students into advanced classes, and superior graduation and college entrance rates. For instance, three New Small Autonomous Schools established as a result of mobilization by Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) showed improvements on statewide standardized tests in just three years compared to schools with similar demographic and socio-economic characteristics and to the school district as a whole (See Figures 6 and 7). The results were better for the elementary schools than in the middle schools (Little and Wing 2003).
Figure 6: Elementary School Students Scoring At or Above "Proficient" on California Standards Test in Mathematics, 2002-2003
Source: Little and Wing 2003
Figure 7: Middle School Students Scoring At or Above “Proficient” on California Standards Test in Mathematics, 2002-2003
Source: Little and Wing 2003
While considered the most important school outcome, raising student achievement remains the most difficult standard to achieve, partly because “achievement” can be defined in so many ways. Not only must organizations overcome the multiple problems facing inner-city neighborhoods, but also students in their schools have to score well on standardized tests that are stacked against them. Some schools have performed well, narrowing the gaps between themselves and those in affluent neighborhoods; however, teachers and organizers must continue to work to bring inner-city schools to higher levels.
Improving the quality of the school climate is another important goal for education organizing efforts. Districts can address overcrowding by building new facilities, reducing class and school sizes, and lowering teacher-student ratios. Schools can create safer learning environments by eliminating environmental hazards and repairing school buildings, implementing fair disciplinary practices for students, and increasing crime and traffic controls around schools. Organizing groups have opened community-controlled public schools in Chicago, Jersey City, New York City, Oakland, and St. Paul, among other cities (Blanc et al. 2002; Beam and Irani 2003; Gold, Simon, and Brown 2002b; Little and Wing 2003). The Parent and Youth Education Policy Collaborative in Chicago has successfully lobbied for increased police patrols around schools, peer review of school disciplinary actions, and money to remove lead paint and install new roofs and windows (Keheler and Morita 2004). Between 1997 and 2004, another group of CBOs in Chicago attracted $132 million in funds to build and improve five schools (http://www.ncbg.org).
It is generally easiest for people concerned about schools to organize about improving school climate. As a highly visible issue, most parents and teachers can readily agree on the pressing needs of physically crumbling, overcrowded, and understaffed facilities. This often provides a convenient starting point for school change without having to immediately challenge the culture of the schools—a much more difficult task (Mediratta and Fruchter 2001; Laughlin 2005). Instead of demanding structural, system-wide changes, school climate can usually be addressed by targeting funds to specific schools with identified problems. The key to sustained education organizing, however, is viewing such improvements as a first step. Bringing a community’s newfound power to bear on more winnable issues, such as getting a new playground, can be a step toward increased public accountability in more complicated arenas, such as increasing the number of higher-level courses and the number of minority students in them.
Education organizing groups pay increasing attention to curriculum and instruction, trying to transform curricula, improve teachers’ qualifications and their expectations for students, and offer better professional development opportunities to school staff. Organized schools in both Oakland and New York have incorporated social justice into the curriculum, helping students identify, research, and take direct action on issues important to their communities (Gold, Simon, and Brown 2002b; Simon, Pickron-Davis and Brown 2002). Other groups have supported the adoption of popular curricula focused on improving math skills and literacy, such as Links to Literacy and Family Math (Blanc et al. 2002; Simon, Pickron-Davis and Brown 2002). To improve teacher quality and address shortages, the Northwest Neighborhood Federation in Chicago helped found El Centro Teacher Training Center so immigrants with teaching certification from their native countries can become certified to teach in the U.S. (Keleher and Morita 2004). LSNA conducted a joint professional development session for more than 80 parents and teachers on ways of exercising respect toward and positive authority over children in the classroom (Blanc et al. 2002).
Groups run up against tougher barriers when they focus their accountability efforts on challenging curriculum and instruction methods. Mediratta and Fruchter (2001, 35) summarize the hesitation many groups feel in confronting issues involving instruction:
Focusing on instruction means groups must translate complex teaching and learning interactions into tangible issues that will energize members and generate clear demands that can be won through direct action campaigns. Because instructional issues…[are] so difficult to define…many groups continue to focus on environment and climate issues as they struggle with how to improve schooling outcomes.
Curriculum discussions often pit parents against the personal and professional interests of entrenched educators and administrators, raising the political stakes considerably. It takes time to give low-income parents, often poorly educated themselves, the confidence to understand and challenge standard education models and practices (Gold, Simon, and Brown 2002). However, evidence shows that parents can gain both confidence and knowledge as they participate as teachers in after-school programs and religious classes, and as academic jargon is translated into their everyday language (Laughlin 2005). While fewer groups have made concerted efforts to address these more technical issues to date, it seems that this number is on the rise.
Organizing groups also fight for improvements in school governance and accountability by gaining more community representation in school decision-making, cultivating the sympathies of school staff and administrators, and educating the educators about their students through home visitations. For example, in New York City, MOM was successful in forcing a district superintendent into retirement, helping pick his replacement, and getting MOM representatives elected to the district school board (Mediratta and Karp 2003). Thanks to OCO, the Oakland Unified School District policy requires design teams of both teachers and parents to create ideas for new small schools (Gold, Simon, and Brown 2002b; Little and Wing 2003).
Improving school governance and accountability is a difficult task, and organizing attempts have yielded mixed results. In some instances, new principals and teachers have embraced communities as equal partners in education. In other cases, however, new staff are not quite so cooperative, as MOM found out when the new superintendent took office (Mediratta and Karp 2003). Mediratta and Fruchter (2001) found that many groups were frustrated by the subsequent reversals of what seemed to be victories in this area. In many cases, initial commitments were overruled by higher-level administrators or weakened by the departure of sympathetic district personnel (Mediratta and Fruchter 2001; Shirley 2002). Also, campaigns to place organizing members into official school leadership positions can backfire when members face the tension of maintaining pressure on the establishment from the inside (Mediratta and Karp 2003; Mediratta and Fruchter 2001).
Finally, most groups work for greater equity, by winning more funds for resource-starved schools, promoting incentives to attract and retaining qualified teachers, and fighting for higher-level course offerings, among other things. OCO helped push through a $300 bond issue to fund the New Autonomous Small Schools Initiative. It also ended the practice of multi-tracking in seven of eight schools, where teachers and students operated on multiple school calendars and rotated classrooms due to overcrowded conditions. They also campaigned helped win salary increases for teachers (Gold, Simon, and Brown 2002b). The Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) fought for and won a $15 million trust from the Washington, D.C. city council to support after-school programs (Mediratta and Fruchter 2001). Other groups have identified the problem of low number of advanced courses offered, along with the low number of minority and poor students in them; they have agitated to see this situation change. In just two years of education organizing, La Familia in Chicago saw more Latinos moving on to higher-level math and science courses in the local high school (Jasis and Ordonez-Jasis 2004).
Equity is perhaps the most controversial goal for groups to pursue because it levels specific claims of injustice against school structures and administrators. Education organizing has produced more resources and fairer treatment for low-income and minority students. It is still easier to win funds to address visible infrastructure issues, such as needed repairs and new school buildings (which may indeed be matters of equitable distribution of resources), as opposed to changing attitudes and funneling resources toward low-income students without knowing if the outcome will measurably raise student achievement.
IAF is a good example of a national organizing group that has taken on education issues. Founded in the 1940s by Saul Alinsky, IAF organizes a broad base of citizens across race and ethnicity on a wide range of issues (Alinsky 1946, 1971).8 Today, the Foundation’s network includes more than 50 local groups representing more than 1,000 institutions and one million families, principally in New York, Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Maryland.9 These IAF affiliates have removed blighted properties and built thousands of units of “Nehemiah” housing built in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington DC.10 Further, they have had successful living wage campaigns in Baltimore and New York; pushed human capital efforts to connect less educated people to good jobs; and, importantly for this paper, developed a large number of Alliance Schools in the Southwest (mostly in Texas) and community-based schools in New York.
IAF’s base is local institutions—primarily faith congregations, but also parents’ associations, schools, and trade unions—which it sees as rooted in communities and committed to advocating for societal change over the long term.11 The organization bases its philosophy on traditional mainstream American values—on religious faith and the self-interest of people—making campaigns for social change more sustainable. IAF works with poor and often less-educated people, channeling their anger about inequality into an agenda for political action. It maintains an “Iron Rule:” never do for people what they can do for themselves—a kind of tough love. This encourages self-reliance among its community leaders. To reach their objectives, members go through multi-day training programs to learn how to think through local issues, to relate to each other and to public officials, and to recruit neighbors to local causes—creating what IAF calls a “university of the streets.” IAF’s organizing process differs from many of the other groups discussed earlier: leadership development and constituent development come early in the process, with issue identification (such as the need for better schools) coming later, flowing out of dialogue within the organization.
IAF has built a network of more than 150 Alliance Schools in Texas and elsewhere in the Southwest. These campuses operate on the philosophy that public schools have a critical role in improving communities. Local IAF groups began organizing to transform a culture of low expectations for students and little or no community participation. Now, they argue, the campuses have increased achievement and formed strategic alliances. Groups focus on strategically engaging parents in the process of running schools, rather than having them involved in a token manner (Shirley 2002). This means building leadership among parents and using the social capital that grows out of that to improve school performance through civic engagement. The Alliance Schools expect teachers to reach out to parents in their neighborhoods. Teachers learn the basics of the IAF philosophy and train in elements of organizing (e.g., how to carry out one-on-one house meetings with parents).
At about the same time that Texas IAF began the Alliance Schools, IAF affiliates in the northeast initiated organizing at set of small high schools in New York City. The city’s Board of Education allowed only community groups to work with high schools, so IAF-East formed the Bronx Leadership Academy in 1992. Other small schools were organized later. The philosophy underlying the New York strategies differed from that in the Southwest. IAF believed that it is very hard to reach the parents of high school students in the ways that parents of elementary and middle school parents were organized in Texas. The older children are, the less likely that their parents are to be involved in the details of their education. Therefore, while IAF-East still emphasized the organization of neighborhoods and churches, it puts more emphasis on hiring excellent principals to inspire change from within the schools. Therefore, the organizing model differed a bit between the two regions. IAF-East (as in Texas) has had to fight hard to dislodge incompetent principals, teachers, and school board officials who stand in the way of better education. Partnerships are not free of conflict, not only for IAF groups but also for others around the country.
Since IAF affiliates in these two regions have been working in schools for well over a decade, there has been enough time for their actions to begin to show tangible results. Our initial assessment of the indicators of both community and school outcomes show some positive results, although students and schools have not reached the highest level of attainment that IAF desires. As Shirley (2002, 38) finds, the advances made thus far have often come with political friction, remain hard to measure in terms of student achievement, and leave “considerable room for improvement.” We now take a closer look at where and why both Texas and New York City IAF groups have been successful, and what problems continue.
IAF groups have a legacy of improving communities by empowering them to act and developing leaders. Texas IAF has done this through its thirteen affiliates throughout the state. The organization has increased community capacity by building bonding social capital within low-income, minority communities, creating a statewide network linking otherwise isolated, fragmented neighborhoods and mobilizing them around issues of joint concern. Shirley (2002) discusses this process in a barrio of McAllen, Texas. There, a priest established a comunidades de base—a weekly meeting at St. Joseph’s the Worker Catholic Church to encourage his parishioners to talk about local problems and explore scriptural responses. The increased social capital that resulted helped with the development of an Alliance School. Both bonding and bridging social capital were evident in events such as a February 2005 weekend conference in Austin, where more than 300 teachers, principals, parents, and CBOs represented the needs of more than 100 schools throughout the state. They discussed key issues facing their schools, problems in their classrooms, accountability, and testing. Notably, the Austin School district superintendent participated in the workshops and engaged the participants. On the final day of the conference, close to 1,000 individuals converged on the State Capitol to lobby legislators on issues important to the Alliance Schools.
The degree of community participation remains quite high even at the local level, with about 200 members from Austin Interfaith, including parents and students, attending a March 2005 Austin Independent School District board meeting. Parents have moved into formal leadership roles within schools, as after school program directors, community liaisons, and the like. Seeing their parents take on such roles has also inspired students to get more involved in school and church leadership (Simon, Gold, and Brown 2002).
IAF has been successful in achieving service integration through education organizing in Austin and elsewhere. Austin Interfaith built the new J. J. Pickle School after a decade of agitation that the school meet a variety of community needs in addition to education. The resulting structure contains a public library, police substation, and community gymnasium.12 In another instance of service integration, members of Austin Interfaith realized that poor student access to healthcare, magnified by the temporary closing of a local clinic, was having severe impacts on student learning. They lobbied and won a new health clinic inside the Zavala Elementary School (Simon, Gold, and Brown 2002).
as we have discussed, standardized test scores are imperfect
indicators of learning, both Texas and New York administer tests
statewide: the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) and
New York State Regents Exams, respectively.13
Keeping in mind the limitations of such tests, we have analyzed some
of the available data on these tests to assess how education
organizing has affected student achievement. Of the twenty
original Alliance Schools that began working in partnership with
Texas IAF in 1992, five were still actively involved in the fall of
Among these five schools, the gap in passing rates on the statewide achievement
test between the schools and the state average narrowed considerably between
1994 and 2002 (see Figure 8). The same is true for fifty veteran Alliance
Schools, or those schools that have been involved in the network for at least
five years (see Figure 9).
Figure 8: Original Alliance Schools Vs. State TAAS Passing Rate, 1994-2002
Source: Texas Education Agency, School Profiles, Various Schools and Years.
Figure 9: Veteran Alliance Schools Vs. State TAAS Passing Rate, 1994-2002
Source: Texas Education Agency, School Profiles, Various Schools and Years.
According to IAF-East organizers in New York, their high schools are in high demand because of their solid reputations among parents and because of their efforts. The Bronx Leadership Academy, the oldest and most successful of the IAF-organized schools, graduated 89 percent of its seniors in 2003 and received 2500 applications for only 125 slots for new students (Interview with Ray Domanico, November 27, 2004). Insideschools.org, an independent organization that rates New York City schools, describes BLA as,
A small, orderly alternative to the large and chaotic neighborhood high schools in the Bronx…[that] has built a reputation as an academically challenging college-preparatory school for both general and special education students. It is a leader in the small-schools movement, and several other new schools, including Bronx Leadership Academy II, have been created on the BLA model…. The school attracts high achieving public school students as well as parochial school students who like the structured setting and the fact BLA has a uniform policy.15
In 2004, BLA had the fifth best graduation rate in the Bronx, behind only the nationally known magnet school—the Bronx High School of Science—and three other small schools. Another IAF school, the East Bronx Congregations High School for Public Service, is the seventh best high school in the city for graduating incoming low-achieving eighth graders on time; it received 800 applications for 100 open slots in 2003. (Interview with Ray Domanico 2004).
10 and 11 compare the results of eight schools set up by organizing
groups with the citywide averages for math and English on the New
York State Regents exams.
Figure 10: Percent of Students Passing Regents Mathematics Exam after Four Years, Organized Schools, Similar Schools, and City, 2002-2003
Source: New York City Department of Education, Annual School Report Cards 2002-2003
Figure 11: Percent of Students Passing Regents Reading Exam after Four Years, Organized Schools, Similar Schools, and City, 2002-2003
Source: New York City Department of Education, Annual School Report Cards 2002-2003
Three of the schools are affiliated with IAF (Bronx Leadership Academy, EBC-Public Service, and EBC-Pubic Safety and Law), two with ACORN (School for Social Justice and Community High School) and three with other groups. Although this section is primarily about IAF schools, we add the other schools in order to provide a richer picture of student achievement in organized schools. On the math Regents exam (Figure 10), IAF’s Bronx Leadership Academy scored more than 20 percentage points higher than both the citywide average and a similar set of schools. More than 90 percent of its students passed the math Regents exam after four years. Two other community schools also performed better than the city average. The results vis-à-vis schools of similar demographics show that the community-organized schools score better than their counterparts do in four of seven math comparisons (the eighth was a tie). In the English exam (Figure 11), the community schools were considerably more successful than the comparison institutions, ahead in six of the eight cases. This shows organized schools beginning to distinguish themselves from schools with similar demographics, but not yet at an overwhelming rate.
IAF groups have also worked to improve school climate. As mentioned above, IAF-East was instrumental in starting at least three new public high schools in New York City controlled by the community. These are all small schools, aimed at providing more focused attention to relatively few students. The demand for admission to these schools has dwarfed available capacity. Austin Interfaith in Texas won political battles to get new and remodeled playgrounds for schools throughout the district. They also collaborated with school staff to plan for safer school arrivals and dismissals, leading to a decrease in the number of traffic-related accidents before and after school. Increased parent visibility within schools, through observation and volunteering, has reduced discipline problems, as well (Simon, Gold, and Brown 2002). In New York’s Bushwick neighborhood, IAF took the lead in cleaning up a serious drug problem at their high school there, demanding a greater police presence (Powis 2005).
Both Texas and New York City IAF affiliates have positive records of accomplishment on improving curriculum and instruction within their schools. Both emphasize the importance of having quality principals that develop a school culture of valuing community in which teachers (especially young ones) are mentored and nurtured. Principals also must juggle the politically difficult tasks of simultaneously working with the neighborhood and the school district administrators—who often have different values and styles. One outstanding example is the first Alliance School principal of Zavala Elementary School in Austin, who mentored at least five future Alliance School principals (Simon, Gold, and Brown 2002; Shirley 1997). In New York, they point to the BLA principal who has been responsible for hiring and mentoring a slate of good teachers.
Austin Interfaith helped raise teacher expectations for student learning, leading to adoption of curricula that are more challenging and emphasize new teaching practices.16 This included the creation of the Young Scientists Program at Zavala Elementary, now replicated at three other schools, leading to an increased number of students accepted into the science magnet program at a prestigious middle school. They also won a new emphasis on quality bilingual education. Austin Interfaith has increased professional development opportunities for teachers and principals through in-service day training and special conferences (Simon, Gold, and Brown 2002).
In Texas, the presence of organized Alliance Schools and their constituents have strengthened school governance and accountability to the community. Parents are hired as official liaisons between schools and communities. Principals, teachers, and parents also regularly join forces to win more resources from the district and the state. Alliance Schools have proven to be a strong force in dealing with officials at all level of government (Simon, Gold, and Brown 2002; Shirley 1997, 2002 ETC).
Teachers have been better connected to the communities their students call home. Austin Interfaith conducts “neighborhood walks” and teacher visits to students’ homes to increase teacher sensitivity to other issues facing their students, as well as to increase parent involvement. According to a former principal, during the first year of operation of the J. J. Pickle School, teachers made approximately 125 house and neighborhood visits. That means that teachers were in that poor, largely immigrant, community about two of every three school days during that year building relationships with parents. (Interview with Claudia Santamaria, February 5, 2005.)
IAF groups want their students to receive equitable resources and opportunities compared to wealthier schools within their districts and states. This is reflected in efforts to win more funds for low-income schools, bilingual education resources for high English learner populations, after school programs to enhance learning, and initiatives to hire teachers that are more qualified and offer courses that are more challenging. We discussed many of these earlier. In addition, Texas IAF convinced the state to commit funding to schools willing to work on student achievement in partnership with communities. A 2002 report showed that the Investment Capital Fund—a competitive statewide grant—stood at $20 million, a ten-fold increase since the original 1993 commitment (Simon, Gold, and Brown 2002), with approximately $2.5 million awarded to Alliance Schools annually (Laughlin 2005).
After-school programs have also been popular means of balancing the playing field and giving poor, highly mobile students a chance to catch up to their wealthier, more stable counterparts. Austin Interfaith helped develop the Collaborative After-School Program with the school district to provide free extracurricular opportunities to schools with low-income populations. Overall, 29 schools, and almost 7,500 students were served within just one year of operation. Student participants had a 3 percent higher rate of school attendance than non-participants had, and reported high levels of satisfaction with the program.17 Dallas Area Interfaith has won $3.5 million in annual after school program funding, and The Metropolitan Organization out of Houston has won $2.9 million to serve more than 12,000 students daily in 100 schools.18
Education organizing has helped both schools and their surrounding communities. Local groups have increased social capital and boosted parents’ interest and participation in schooling. In doing so, they have also raised parents’ ability and willingness to challenge the insular nature of school systems and question top-down school reform, breaking down what one organizer called the “fallacy of the expert.” When these community-based efforts are successful, schools are more effective and student achievement improves.
Every organizing context is different politically, socially, economically, and institutionally. However, inner-city schools and communities all face similar issues. Several common elements of success emerge from the education-organizing movement. First, parents and school staff view themselves increasingly as allies rather than adversaries. A second key ingredient is leadership on the part of principals, who can motivate teachers and engage parents in the common enterprise of helping kids learn. Often, community organizations help identify good principals and bring neighborhoods and schools together. In doing so, they raise the level of expectations for learning. Third, organizing has forced school systems to repair facilities, provide for safer schools, and create new, small schools. In many cases, the results have been improved scores on standardized tests in schools that have historically lagged behind schools in more affluent parts of their districts. We have documented clear cases of the narrowing differentials between rich and poor schools, when the latter are organized. In the end, we have shown that organizing matters.
These successes have come in the face of substantial obstacles. The complex nature of the problems facing inner-city communities and schools certainly hamper the effectiveness of targeted campaigns to improve urban public education. However, it is also important to remember that the number of communities in which education organizing occurs remains small in proportion to the needs within inner cities. Similarly, the number of schools actually involved in organizing nationally is probably less than one percent of all schools. More victories are possible, but a long-term effort of organizers remains necessary.
The emphasis on student achievement as a benchmark of school reform success remains a problem for organizers. While many education-organizing groups are motivated by the need to improve student achievement, the diverse actions they use to address this “problem” make correlations between their actions and test results hard to establish. As we have indicated, some groups focus on system-wide inequalities in resource distribution—inadequate facilities, poor teacher quality, and lack of textbooks—as the root of poor test performance. Others take a more school-level approach, targeting low teacher expectations by getting individual teachers involved in the community and introducing higher-level courses into the curriculum. A few also try to address what they believe to be “bad” curriculum and instruction methods by researching and suggesting alternative means of teaching and course content. Groups may utilize a combination of such strategies based on different community needs and their level of organizational sophistication. While this diversity is good in that it allows groups to develop strategies in context of their communities, it also hinders researchers’ ability to isolate the impacts of organizing on outcomes. It also raises the question of whether or not organizing should be deemed “failures” when test scores or other measures of achievement do not change significantly, when other elements of school-community life have shown improvement.
Some organizing drives have not achieved long-term success. While it is good to understand what is working, little has been done to document education-organizing campaigns that have fallen short or succeeded only marginally, and analyze the circumstances surrounding such disappointments. Some schools started with community group support have closed, as in the case of several ACORN schools, while others have simply fallen away from the organizing movement, as evidenced by the constant flux in the number of official Alliance Schools (Beam and Irani 2003; Interview with Carrie Laughlin, March 28, 2005). This may be due to school staff turnover, redistricting, lack of people and funds for sustained organizing, or other reasons (Shirley 2002; Interview with Carrie Laughlin, March 28, 2005). However, little research has tracked such attrition to determine its root causes and how education organizers might overcome them.
The time needed for successful organizing grows more precious as standardized testing takes up more classroom time and administrative energy. The availability of school staff is limited for participating in developing relational cultures among teachers, parents, and children through house visits, neighborhood walks, study groups, parent academies, and other efforts. Lack of such time slows the process of making inroads within the educational establishment and seeing real changes because it takes many years for the elements of good schooling to gel. (Interview with Claudia Santamaria and Sr. Mignonne Konecny, February 5, 2005).
In the end, the evidence that we have amassed shows real progress—evidence that these groups have made considerable headway in the face of difficult conditions. Schooling will improve as education organizing continues to better connect communities and schools. More clearly needs to be done in this new field, but a solid foundation has been set for improving communities, boosting student achievement, and transforming inner-city public schools.
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1 Poverty is distributed unevenly across metropolitan areas: the poverty rate in central cities (18.4 percent) was more than twice the rate in the suburbs (8.3 percent) in 2000. Jargowsky (2003) and Kingsley and Pettit (2003) show that the extent of concentrated poverty declined during the 1990s. However, it remains high and the consequences in terms of poor health, crime, and bad social services remain for residents continue to be substantial.
2 “Large central cities” included in the sample for the referenced study are Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, District of Columbia, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, and San Diego.
3 Among these studies are Clark and Herrin (2000), Figlio and Lucas (2000), Bogart and Cromwell (2000), and Hayes and Taylor (1996). Baum (2004) links inner-city school quality to the debate over smart growth.
4 In our discussion, we refer to “community-based organizations” as those whose primary constituency is neighborhood residents and local institutions to which they belong (e.g. civic clubs and faith institutions). There is much debate as to whether groups initiated by outside forces (government, universities, unions, businesses, etc.) are truly “community-based,” representing the interests of residents.
5 On organizing related to the national groups discussed in this paper, see Alinsky 1946, 1971; Gecan 2002; http://acorn.org; http://www.piconetwork.org; Slessarev 2000, Osterman 2002. For research on organizing more generally, see Gittell and Vidal 1998; Kahn 1991; Parachini and Covington n.d; Piven and Cloward 1977; Mondros and Wilson 1994; Tropman, Erlich, and Rothman 1995.
6 In his seminal work on this subject, Putman (2000; 19) defines social capital as “the connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” This connectedness is similar to the sorts of bonds among neighbors that Jane Jacobs (1961) found in her Greenwich Village neighborhood in the 1950s. Jacobs used the term in her book as did Coleman (1988) in connection to education’s social context.
7 As of 2002, more than 840 parents had been through the program (Blanc et al. 2002).
8 There are many writings on IAF, including two books on schools by Shirley (1997, 2002). Other writings on IAF include Chambers (2004), Gecan (2001) Osterman (2001), Warren (2001), Cortes (1994), and Rogers (1990).
9 There are also IAF groups at work in Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom. For more information on IAF, see http://www.industrialareasfoundation.org/iafabout/about.htm
10 Nehemiah was the Old Testament prophet who rebuilt Jerusalem.
11 Three other national organizing groups—the Pacific Institute for Community Organization (PICO), Direct Action for Research and Training (DART), and the Gamiliel Foundation follow the IAF model. In contrast, ACORN’s membership base is individuals, arguing that few very low-income individuals are connected to any institutions. ACORN organizes door-to-door and claims to be active in 60 cities (Strom n.d.).
12 In 2004, J.J. Pickle Elementary School was selected by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation to join its “Schools as Centers of Community Honor Society.” In making the award to Pickle, the foundation noted, “Austin Interfaith, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization, is perhaps Pickle’s most high-impact collaborator in identifying and developing community leaders that hold the school and school district accountable for students’ academic achievement.” For more information, see http://www.nationalschoolsearch.org/honors/school.asp?intSchoolID=5.
13 The TAKS replaced the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) as the statewide test beginning in the 2002-2003 school year. Most of the data we report is from the earlier TAAS test.
14 Some of these schools are no longer in operation or connected to the group that organized them. We discuss potential reasons for this in Section 6, “Conclusion.”
16 Resnick (1999) notes the importance of developing a culture of high expectations among teachers, children, and parents—and making these expectations clear to all.
17 “After School is Austin Prime Time.” http://www.communityeducation.org/asp.htm . Accessed on March 17, 2005.
MetroMath, a Center for Learning and Teaching funded by the National Science Foundation, supported this research under Grant # ESI0333753. A consortium of Rutgers University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the City University of New York, MetroMath aims to improve the learning of mathematics of inner-city children. More information about MetroMath is available at http://www.metromath/org. We thank several members of the MetroMath group, including Roberta Schorr, Joseph Rosenstein, and Yakov Epstein for their support. Eva Gold and Gregory Camilli provided insights and help with data. We also thank organizers, parents, teachers, and principals associated with the Industrial Areas Foundation and their Alliance Schools program in Texas. We are especially grateful to Claudia Santamaria, Sr. Mignonne Konecny, and Carrie Laughlin of IAF-Southwest and Michael Gecan and Ray Domanico of IAF-Northeast for discussions and provision of information. Michael Gecan provided helpful comments on an earlier draft. We are responsible for any errors of interpretation of fact that remain.
Glickman is University Professor, Rutgers University and a member of the MetroMath faculty. Scally is a doctoral candidate in Urban Planning and Policy Development, Rutgers University.