An El Paso education advocacy organization wants to cultivate a network of parents who have the knowledge and skills to push for improvements in area schools.
A $250,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation allowed the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Education Development, or CREEED, to hire its first parent and community engagement coordinator.
CREEED formally announced Wednesday its hiring of coordinator Lorena Chavira, who started in August. Chavira most recently worked as a student recruitment coordinator at Harmony Public Schools, a Texas-based charter chain with four El Paso campuses.
“Any form of lasting change in the education system in our community is going to absolutely be dependent on the most critical stakeholders, and those are our students and parents,” said Amy O’Rourke, who directs CREEED’s “Choose to Excel” initiative.
That initiative aims to increase the number of students who graduate from college. To do that, CREEED has spent millions recruiting high-performing charter schools to El Paso , like IDEA Public Schools, and invested in the University of Texas at El Paso’s teacher residency program, which trains future and first-year public school teachers.
Now, its focus is on parents.
In a news release, Chavira said her job is “to ensure they (parents) have the tools to use their voice to champion positive change.”
What that will look like is unclear, though CREEED’s website notes it will help parents research school performance using state accountability ratings as well as the school options they have.
O’Rourke pointed to the Powerful Parents Network as a model for CREEED’s newest engagement effort. That network includes parent advocacy groups in Memphis, Nashville, Atlanta, Oakland and San Antonio. It gained national attention this winter when it met with Democratic presidential candidates to press them on their education policies, including their support for high-performing charters.
Memphis Lift, the parent group whose model has influenced those in other cities, also received support from the Walton foundation, which has donated more than $400 million to charters over the last two decades.
Asked about efforts to create a parent network in El Paso, Texas State Teachers Association spokesperson Clay Robison expressed concern that “CREEED seems to be using these parents to advance its own agenda to enrich charter operators with no guarantee the parents will like the results.”
Because charter schools are governed by appointed boards who meet at the chain’s headquarters, “if a parent has a complaint, good luck,” Robison said.
Walton’s grant covers 18 months, and O’Rourke said the foundation indicated a willingness to continue financially supporting CREEED’s parent engagement efforts.
Though many schools have active Parent Teacher Associations, Chavira won’t initially work within the traditional school setting. Instead, she’ll connect with parents through community or faith groups, at recreation centers or family-oriented events.
“What we’re really trying to do is listen to parents outside of that setting so that they can feel like they can be honest in their feedback on the school system,” O’Rourke said. CREEED is interested in what parents think about the quality of their child’s school, how their school encourages them to become involved and whether the school is receptive to constructive criticism.
At the end of the grant period, CREEED aims to “have developed a network of parents that are already starting to take advocacy steps to improve not only their child’s school but also the system at large,” O’Rourke said.
Cover photo: Ruby Ramirez, a high school English teacher, sits with her 5-year-old daughter as they work through a lesson during remote learning in the spring. (Photo courtesy of Ruby Ramirez)
Editor’s note: The Walton Family Foundation is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters.