Education Week - April 19, 2017 - 12
An Education Week Analysis
N.M. Program Teaches Low-Income Parents to Network
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 1
and more influence in schools. (See chart, Page
13.) Those differences in parent involvement
can create hidden disparities that are easy for
schools to overlook but hard for poor families
And those inequities are only likely to increase
nationwide, as income disparities and economic
isolation rise. America's middle class has shrunk
in 203 of 229 metropolitan areas since 2000, according to a 2016 study from the Pew Research
Here in Albuquerque, Pew finds the middle class
decreased by more than 4 percent from 2000 to
2014, with low-income families' share of the population growing from 28.6 percent to 33 percent.
Even within economically diverse schools, social networks can become segregated by race or
income level, according to Linn Posey-Maddox,
an assistant professor of educational policy at
the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In studies of gentrifying urban areas, she and
colleagues found that middle-class families often
recruit a "critical mass" of similar families and
enroll their children in low-income schools in
groups, working together to raise money and
change policies. While those middle-class parents reported wanting to include low-income
parents, the resulting social systems and policies
tended to end up exclusive, Posey-Maddox found.
"A lot of these social groups of parents and
gatherings exist in separate silos," she said.
"There might be a [parent-teacher organization], a bilingual-action committee, a Title I
group mandated by the state-but there's not
a lot of collaboration or sharing of resources
across these parent groups."
In part, that may be because parents in professional jobs have greater work flexibility, and
they use it to volunteer, observe their children's
classes, and participate in clubs and committees that help shape the schools' policies, as
Posey-Maddox found in another study.
By contrast, parents in low-income jobs-especially hourly-wage work-often must sacrifice pay to take part. Events that aren't scheduled long in advance can become impossible to
Parents here in this diverse, 84,000-student
district-those in poverty as well as those in
the middle class-said it can be difficult for
families who don't have good relationships with
staff members to navigate the system.
"I went to meetings," said Evelyn Ramos, another Albuquerque parent, "but I just sat there;
I didn't know what to ask for."
And that was doubly true for those like Muñoz
whose second language is English. While official
district notices were delivered in both Spanish
and English, information about many enrichment activities, like play groups, summer camps,
and music lessons, often came in English only.
As her son moved through elementary school,
Muñoz said, "It was hard for me to get an appointment with the principal; they were always
busy or in a meeting. And I didn't see that interest at the school in having parents there; if
they saw a parent, they are like, 'Oh, what's
wrong now?' I get that feeling."
In fact, Posey-Maddox found economically
diversifying schools that improved while also
maintaining equity for their lower-income
students were those where leaders and staff
members worked not just to improve parent involvement overall, but specifically to help lowincome and disengaged parents join the conversation and advocate for their own children with
12 | EDUCATION WEEK | April 19, 2017 | www.edweek.org
Steven St. John for Education Week
Mary Muñoz counts out
Play-Doh figures with her
son Nathan at home in
Albuquerque, N.M. She
found Nathan's earlychildhood center through
a parent in the Family
MULTIMEDIA: See how
differences in parent resources
contribute to academic gaps.
the higher-income parents.
Katarina Sandoval, the student-services director for the Albuquerque public schools, said
the district is working to "reimagine or redefine
parent involvement" at its 140 schools. "Traditional metrics would say, how many parents
come to your [parent-teacher organization]
meetings," Sandoval said. "That certainly is
one way to measure it, but we recognize more
and more parents are working one, two, three
jobs, [and] they don't have the luxury of making
those face-to-face meetings."
Jesús Gerena, a managing partner of the Family Independence Initiative, a nonprofit that
works with parents in nine cities, including Albuquerque, contends that schools should rethink
how they go about engaging low-income families.
"Most school districts are thinking about the problem [of poverty and education] and concentrating on
trying their best guess at solving the problem, but
mostly without engaging parents and letting them
take leadership," Gerena said. "Often, schools marginalize these parents and degrade them in front of
their own children, saying they aren't the ones with
experience. You can't rob parents of the opportunity
to say, 'How can we help ourselves?' "
Building Social Capital
Muñoz had the same determination three years
ago but few paths forward.
By 2014, the family's new baby, Nathan, was
mostly in the care of Muñoz's mother during the
day. Both Muñoz and her husband, Gabriel Flores,
worked full time-he, in construction, and she, as
a manager at the Triple R Mobile Park where the
family lives-but they couldn't make ends meet
month to month and had few others to fall back on.
Christian was doing well in school, but by
5th grade was starting to get bullied, and the
academic odds in the district were against him:
Albuquerque 6th graders perform nearly a full
grade level below the national average for their
grade in reading and math, according to data
from the Stanford Education Data Archive. But
the district's white students perform more than
a half-grade above the national average, while
Hispanic students, whose share of enrollment
is twice as large, perform nearly a grade and a
half below the national average.
The Muñoz-Flores family was one of the first
to join the Family Independence Initiative, which
recruits groups of six to eight families into a single
network. Each group and family commits to working with the initiative for two years and sets their
own goals-improving their children's education,
building up savings, improving their families'
health, and so on. Every month, each family records progress on its goals, and the group meets at
least once a month to share ideas and help.
"Success isn't alone; people have to have other
people who support them," said Suzy Sarmiento,
the director of the initiative's work in Albuquerque. For the first six months, Sarmiento said,
initiative staff members do nothing but collect
the families' monitoring data and take notes at
After that time, parents can apply for an array
of small-scale grants, intended to fill in the "extras" that a middle-class family would have. For
example, families who keep up to $1,000 in savings for at least three months can get a matching grant to put toward education-often college
tuition for parents or children-or business or
home improvement. Other families may get a
more general education scholarship that can be
used for after-school enrichment or tutoring as
well as tuition, or a $500 "family time" grant for
a project parents want to do with their children,
from cooking classes to BMX bike racing.
One parent in Muñoz's group recommended the
early-childhood center where Nathan, now 3, has
started to learn English. Another parent walked
the family through the seven-month application and lottery process to get Christian into the
Christine Duncan Heritage Academy, a charter
middle school where he started 6th grade with
art and gifted education.
Muñoz said her own family has gone from living month to month on food stamps to building
a savings account. Using one of the education
matching grants, she has studied nutrition and
wellness and expects to receive her certificate
from a local community college this July. She
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