School Reform and the Role of the Community

Following is condensed from an interview with Tony Baez, a long-time activist in Milwaukee who has a particular concern with issues of bilingual education and parent and community involvement in school reform. He is currently an assistant professor at the Center for Urban Community Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Tony Baez was interviewed by Barbara Miner of Rethinking Schools.

When people talk of the players in urban school reform, they generally mention parents, teachers, and the community. What is the role of community in school reform?

First you have to define what you mean by community, which is a very broad and amorphous concept. In many cities, people will define community at convenience

Many school districts, for instance, define community as including the business sector and anybody else who is not a parent, teacher, or administrator. The problem is that this makes it difficult to determine who it is that can speak for community, and it neglects the specific role of communities of color in urban school reform.

Historically, communities of color have found it important to organize advocacy groups to ensure that the schools respond to the needs of their children. Why do we need such advocacy organizations? Let’s talk specifically about the Latino community, which is where I am involved most concretely, although not exclusively.

The Latino community involves middleclass parents, it involves poor parents, it involves those who some refer to as an underclass, it involves nationals from Mexico or Puerto Rico who have recently arrived here and who have little experience with schools in America. There are those of us in the Latino community who, despite such differences, share a community of interest: we want what is best for our Latino community. I used to have children in the public schools, but they are now graduated. But there are people who are an extension of my family, people of my community, people who I care about, that still attend school. If I can use my skills and background to help, I have a responsibility to do so.

There are very specific reasons why parents sometimes need the help of community members. Just to give you an example. Yesterday somebody came to see me from an elementary school in Milwaukee and said, “We had a wonderful principal at our school that has left, who did a lot of good things for the Latino children. And there is now a major concern about who is going to be taking over that school. You need to help us.”

I said that such concerns have to come from the parents of that school; they need to raise the issues, they need to find and create the ways to influence who is going to come into the school. And this person pointed out that the school is over 80% Latino, and most of the parents know very little about how to influence the system. This person reiterated that they, the parents, wanted to meet with me to help them respond.

So this puts me in a situation where now I am going to become involved in that school, even though I don’t have children there and don’t live in the immediate geographic area of the school. But that community, those groups of parents, are calling upon me as someone who has been involved for many years on behalf of Latino children. In the same way they came to me, they have gone to other people. And they will bring us in as members of “the Latino community.”

Could you be more explicit on how you define community? Is it a geographic concept based on neighborhood? Or is it cultural? Or racial? Or religious?

This is a very difficult question and everyone has taken shots at it. I’m not too sure how I define it, although the question of vision and “a community of interests” is very important.

By and large, I work with the flow. The fact is, there are people who call me as a member of the Latino community of Milwaukee, not as someone who lives in a specific geographic area. In fact, many Latinos don’t live anymore within the geographic confines that people identify as the Latin community. Latinos live all over the city. So you can’t adopt a strictly geographic definition.

When people call upon me to help out in school issues, they say, “You have to help us because you are in fact a part of our community of interests.” And this community of interest is defined not by geography, but by a vision and commitment to seeing that society lives up to its promise to provide access and opportunities to the Latinos in Milwaukee.

What are some of the obstacles to increased community involvement in schools?

One of the main problems is that structurally, schools have organized themselves so that community is defined at convenience by the people who run the schools. For example, it is okay — actually it’s more than okay, it’s considered great — to bring in business. So then it’s the representatives of business and industry who tend to become the community representatives on a school committee, especially in school-to-work initiatives. But when representatives of a community of interests happen to be people of color, and they have an interest on how schools work for their kids, then there will be all sorts of questions about the legitimacy of their involvement.

As a result, an international company, which may care less about what happens to the Latino kids on the South Side of Milwaukee, but has decided in its own colonial way to help these children, all of a sudden may become a member of the community of interests at South Division High School, because it got the blessing by somebody in the school or Central Office. Yet at the same time, questions are raised about the legitimacy of the involvement by somebody who does not have children in that school, but who has been an activist committed to improving the quality of life for Latinos in Milwaukee.

Does this questioning come from Central Office, from the administrators, from teachers, from the union?

It varies. They all make decisions of convenience. Principals, for example, may not like somebody from a particular community and will say, “You’re not a parent, so bug off. This is an issue for parents and teachers.” Teacher union leadership also says these kind of things.

In general, those in authority in the schools will only bring in community when it is to their advantage or when they feel politically threatened by the power of the community organization. By and large, I think the reluctance is political, often based on the color of the people involved.

Who speaks for community when, within the community, there are different points of view?

No one person or organization can speak for the entire community. I cannot claim that I am the only voice that speaks for the Latino community. I may be a voice that speaks for an organized sector of the community, one that has a particular take on how to affect parental and community involvement in order to change schools. But there is always the possibility of another voice arising with a different point of view. That is not uncommon. It happens in the white community, it happens in the Black community, it happens in suburbia.

How does a teacher or administrator, who is trying to be sensitive to community concerns, how do they choose which person or organization best represents the interests of a community?

By using good discretion and judgment. A principal who is a good manager needs to build relationships with a variety of individuals from the community. You sustain those relationships and you develop collaborative models that provide voice for different perspectives. And if you do that well, you are able then to bring these different perspectives into your school. But you don’t just arbitrarily exclude one particular group.

I am not saying this is an easy task. In terms of schools, these are questions that will forever be debated. But we can’t say that such problems are particular to ethnic minority communities. They are true of any community.

What about the tensions between organized labor and community interests?

People working on behalf of communities of color often look upon an institution such as schools and try to identify the forces within the institution that are going to help us meet our vision and our goals, and those that will be obstacles. Over the years, those of us active in minority communities — and not only in Milwaukee but all over the country — have identified teachers unions as not being very supportive of the interests of communities of color. By and large this is a function both of class and of color.

That’s not to mean there are not people within the membership of teachers unions who are supportive of our concerns. But institutionalized, white organized labor has not supported meaningful school involvement by members of communities of color, nor helped more members of communities of color enter and join the teaching profession.

Do you have any specific examples?

Some years ago, for instance, there was a struggle by the Latino community in Milwaukee to increase the number of Latinos in the public schools such as special education personnel, guidance counselors, and people working as assessment personnel in bilingual education. A short time afterward, however, there was a reduction in the workforce in those areas. The administration, upon our urging, tried to keep the bilingual personnel. And the union immediately objected. We tried to approach the union and say, “You have to give us some leeway here because if always the Latino and the African-American personnel are going to be the first to be let go, then we’re not going to have them.” But the union was unwilling to even talk about the issue. So we had to file a grievance with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and the Office for Civil Rights. Both agencies ordered the district to keep them [the bilingual personnel] and to make provisions within the contract to make those kind of changes. The same situation emerged with bilingual teachers. Eventually, due to state legislation passed thanks to the Latino community, now the school district has an obligation to protect bilingual teachers.

This example goes back to your first question about the role of community. It took the community of interests, the people from the community, to raise the issue, file the complaint, make the legal arguments. In the best of worlds, parents should have done that; in fact, this has been the case in other parts of the country. But in Milwaukee, we did not have, at that particular moment, parent organizations strong enough to do that. But we had organizations with Latino professionals among their members who acted on the issue. Most of us had children in the public schools, although some people did not identify us as parents — but we were a community of interests, concerned because the issue affected all Latino children.

Do you have any recent examples?

The big example, of course, involves the Latino community’s involvement in the reform effort at South Division High School.

The Latino community in Milwaukee has been struggling with the case of South Division for many, many years. This is a school that historically served a white, working-class community. But today, that school is home to over 915 Latino children. Latinos constituteabout 52% of the student body, Asians and Native Americans are about 7%, and African Americans about 25%. Yet the curriculum and the school culture have changed very little to reflect those demographic changes of the last 15 years. To further complicate the problem, South has a small group of white teachers that is one of the strongest, most recalcitrant, most resistant to change of any group of teachers in MPS. The teaching staff at South is 76% white. Most of the teachers resisting change at South have been there 15 years or more. By contrast, few of the Latino and African-American teachers have been at South that long. Over the years, a group of white teachers emerged who feel they own and control that school.

By and large, those teachers were failing the students. Compared to Milwaukee Public High Schools as a whole, South had a higher drop out rate in 1992-93, and lower scores on the ACT, the 10th grade math test, and the 10th grade reading test. More than 40% of the students were failing English, and about 50% were failing math and science. The average GPA for students of color was between 1.1 and 1.4, or a low D. The situation was intolerable.

When you have a school that has such a substantial number of Latino children, then clearly the Latino community, the community of interests advocating for Latino children, has the right to become involved. Teachers unions and administrators don’t particularly like that. They would like to deal with a group of parents and channel them into fairly passive activities such as pizza sales. I wish to make clear that this statement is not an attack on parents, but this channeling is a reality all over the country.

In Milwaukee, we decided that it was important to get more parents prepared to take on the fight of reforming South. To help, a group of Latino activists formed a Roundtable bringing together parents and other members of the community of interests. People had different views on how to change South. Some wanted its name changed. Some wanted to control the Chapter 1 committee. We argued that we had to create a coalition of people who might not agree on everything, but that could be a mechanism by which people both inside and outside the school could come together to help the school change.

What was the response to the Roundtable?

First we were confronted by system people who said to us, “The Roundtable can’t just be about Latino concerns, because we have African Americans in that school, and we have white children in that school.” And we said, “We know that. But we cannot speak for those communities.”

“But,” we added, and this is important, “we are willing to change the Latino Roundtable to the South Division Roundtable and open it to everybody that wants to help.” But the bottom line had to be that South Division needed to change academically, culturally, and socially. We advocated a vision with two core concepts. First, that there be high academic standards so that all students receive an academic sequence preparing them for college. Second, we advocated a multicultural, bilingual approach allowing students the chance to retain and develop their native language while acquiring proficiency in English — and which also called on the school to promote bilingualism as a value for all students. We also argued that the school’s culture and curriculum could no longer be warped by deficit-based, remedial approaches to education relying on “at-risk” labeling of students. And we argued that in order to implement this new vision, the mix of adults that had been working in the school might need to change.

We started to work closely with the school’s administration and a new Latino principal, and we immediately ran into resistance from teachers. At South Division — and this is not true of teachers at other schools in the area, so one must conclude there is a specific problem at South — there is a group of teachers that began to organize other teachers to object to the intervention of community people who were not parents. The way I see it, they felt threatened because some of the proposals would probably displace some teachers from that school. This group of teachers also did not share the vision that was being proposed. There is always the issue of personalities when you try to change schools; over the years some teachers at South had clashed with members of the Latino community and didn’t particularly want to “give in” and weaken the power they had amassed in that school.

Today the Roundtable is constituted by all kinds of people. But the predominance continues to be Latino — understandably so, if over 50% of the population in the school is Latino, and if the immediate community surrounding the school is Latino. African-American children are bused into that school, and most of the white children come from the geography close by but not immediate to the school. But the predominance of Latinos was used against us by organized groups of teachers who went out to the alumni association, which is almost all white, and complained about what was happening. The alumni association, whose only real connection to the school is emotional, based on having graduated from the school 15, 25, or 40 years ago, was used to muddy the issue of what community had a right to speak to the needs of the children in the school.

To make a long story short, we approached the teachers union and we said, “Before this gets uglier, let’s try to work this out. We would like this community of interests to collaborate with the teachers union to avoid further clashes with the teachers in that building.” We wanted the union to help get people to coalesce around the idea that reform is needed, and to understand that what worked for people who graduated from South 20 or 30 or 40 years ago is not necessarily going to work for the population of kids today.

We told the union that if it worked with us, we would work to prevent the district from closing the school as a failing school. But, and we were very clear on this, we told the union it had to help us change the mix of adults in the school, because some teachers at South do not share the vision that the community is putting forth, and should not be there. We told the union it should assist such teachers in finding another school. We started discussions with the teachers union on that premise.

In 1994 the Roundtable and the school developed a new vision for South. This document was shared with the superintendent, with the school’s management and teachers, and discussed at the community level — there had been a ton of meetings, hearings, and workshops around that vision. Almost everybody agreed that the vision made sense.

The union initially agreed to work with us. It was also agreed that the National Education Association — which includes in its literature a lot of the things that we said in our vision — should come in to help. There was nothing in that vision that the NEA could say, “Well we can’t live with that.” Instead, they said, “It’s a great vision, but the way it was developed, there are some teachers in the school that are saying they were not given voice.” We have maintained all along that that is a lie. Whoever wanted to could have had voice.

We know for a fact that there were groups of teachers that purposefully called in sick on the days we had meetings at the school, so that they would not be in a position of saying they had heard about the vision. In one instance, approximately 40 people called in sick, when they had been invited to participate in a discussion of the new vision.

One of our premises in the Roundtable is that teachers are public servants. Teachers have no right to be in a school when they reject a vision shaped and defined by a majority of the people involved with the communities affected by the school, when they reject a vision developed by a legitimate and democratic process — and when, in fact, they not only reject the vision but are trying to sabotage it. Such teachers have a right to a job, but not a right to be in that particular school.

But unions protect such teachers. We told the teachers union, “You don’t have a right to do that. You have a right to protect the labor interests of those people, and you have a right to make sure that they are not victimized by the process, that they don’t lose out on employment opportunities, or wages, or whatever. But you don’t have the right to fight a community that has put forth something that is going to advance the cause of children. You do not have the right to support people who are sabotaging such an effort. You should work to take them out of the school and put them somewhere else.”

All along we thought that the teachers union understood that, and that they realized they had a problem in that particular school. The union made promises to us in meeting after meeting. But then the union took to the teachers a counter-proposal sabotaging the Roundtable effort. They presented a document that said basically that the teachers have the right to develop their own document and vision, that the teachers should be the dominant power in such decisions — in essence saying the teachers have the right to run the school. But the teachers don’t have an absolute right to run South Division, not alone.

But some reformers argue exactly that: that teachers should run and develop schools.

I take a strong position against the view that teachers should have the right to run schools. And I will continue to take that position as long as the composition of the teaching staff in our urban schools is predominantly white. In suburban communities and in homogeneous white communities, nobody is saying, “Give teachers the full right to determine what happens in a school.” What I’m talking about here is a double standard based on the color of the teachers versus the color of the students.

Back to South. What would you have preferred the union to do?

Our argument has been that the teachers union, if it were sincere about education reform, should have collaborated with the attempt by the community of interests represented in the Roundtable. Sure there were going to be rough spots. But instead the union betrayed us. They took the position that the teachers should define the educational agenda, and that the communities should have a supportive, subordinate role. That’s a racist position in a school where 76% of the teachers are white and 84% of the kids are of color. There is no way a teachers union would be able to get away with that kind of an argument in a white, homogeneous community.

But doesn’t labor have the responsibility to defend the interests of its members?

Let me put it this way. The argument has been made that the Roundtable was teacher bashing and was taking an antiunion position. That’s not true. We respect the right of teachers to be organized, to be protected in their employment, and to have the benefits and opportunities that everybody else has in the system. We really believe that teachers need to have opportunities for organization and representation, especially when their livelihood can be threatened unfairly.

But it is difficult to define to what extent teachers, as a group, constitute traditional organized labor. In fact, teachers are representatives of a professional class, they are public servants, and they work on behalf of communities and for communities and for children. And there are moments when, the labor interests of teachers aside, decisions need to be made to benefit children, not adults. What ought to prevail is the interests of the community.

We’ve also heard the argument that it’s wrong to make a distinction between labor and community. That may be true in the context of, let’s say, people who work in a tannery under the bridge here on the south side of Milwaukee and who happen to live in the area and are active in the community. But that is not the case with teachers in Milwaukee. By and large, teachers do not live within the neighborhoods where they work. As a matter of fact, they sometimes stay away from those neighborhoods. Their interests are not necessarily intertwined with the interests of a particular community of color.

Such distinctions need to be made. And it is important for teachers unions to recognize that their survival in this country may depend on the degree to which they learn to work with such tensions.

How do you move forward?

I must add at this point that our intervention in South Division has had positive results, in spite of our disagreements with the union’s staff. This past year, South Division students improved their academic performance on all outcome variables except the ACT. The culture of the school is changing and kids appear more interested and involved in the social and cultural life of the school; also, parental involvement has increased significantly — there are more parent volunteer hours at South today than in any other high school in Milwaukee. One of the most important additions to South is a Family Center and an adult pre-college education program that enrolls close to 90 parents daily.

But the Latino community has drawn several lessons from our experience with the teachers union. One is that we cannot hold discussions with the current union leadership on educational issues as long as all they are concerned about is protecting the labor interests of their folks. If the leadership changes, we of course will revisit that question.

A second lesson is that, particularly as it relates to large high schools, we may need to move in the direction of breaking the power imbalance that exists between the organized staff and the community. It is difficult to bring about significant reform in high schools with large enrollments. Reform is made yet more difficult when communities of color have to persuade long-represented staff of the educational and staff changes that need to be made.

What do you mean?

If, for example, you have close to 160 staff members at South Division that are represented by labor, and that have behind them labor organizations and the labor movement, that is a very formidable power; it makes it difficult for communities to push for change. So one of the lessons is that we have to break up those big high schools so that we don’t have such large concentrations of power in the hands of teachers and administrators. With smaller schools, you may be dealing with 25 to 35 staff members. The union can still protect their labor interests, but it’s not 160 people. Community and parent organizations will find it much easier to work with smaller schools.

This issue of Rethinking Schools has a letter referring to tensions that can erupt when a white teacher feels that representatives of minority communities are demanding educational practices that conflict with the best educational interests of children. What should teachers do in such a situation?

That’s a difficult question. But one thing I think that Lisa Delpit points to is that when you have such tensions, white, liberal teachers do not have the right to impose their position upon minority communities. They have the right to voice their concerns regarding a particular perspective. But to fight communities to the point where the teachers prevent the voice of community from being heard, well that would never be tolerated in a white, homogeneous community. In a white, homogeneous community, if the community decides the schools are going to stress phonics, for instance, and there are teachers who are for whole language, it’s going to be phonics.

There seems to be the notion that when minority communities raise these kinds of pedagogic issues, liberal teachers should galvanize around the liberal perspective and enter into a conflict situation with the minority community — even though they may, in the long term, be wrong. None of us know the answers to everything, because there are many questions that have not been settled pedagogically. So there is a point at which the liberal perspective has to defer to such concerns in communities of color.

Some people argue that if you have an Afro-centric or bilingual curriculum, you’re going to increase the balkanization in this country and you’re never going to get the kids to be Americans. How would you respond?

Yes, schools should work to make sure that all children, especially those new to this country, learn enough about this country’s formation and development to be able to function as American citizens. But they don’t have to do that at the expense of not teaching children an understanding of their roots, their language, their culture, their historical experiences. It’s a function of how the curriculum balances those things out.

When the African-American community works on an African-American immersion school like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King here in Milwaukee, and tries to do something to bring relevance to these children who have been neglected for so long, then that needs to be respected. There’s a lot of good judgment that has gone into all of this. That’s what good pedagogy is about: good judgment.

I’m not a proponent of absolute formulas in bilingual education or Afrocentric curriculum. I also think that all this criticism of Afro-centrism and bilingualism needs to be put in perspective. Nobody has gone around questioning white suburbia and white communities in Wisconsin about their Eurocentric curriculum.