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Alliance Schools Provide Alternative for Immigrants in Texas - 2003-11-26

In border states like Texas and California, children of undocumented immigrants make up a substantial part of the student body in public schools. Many of these children face challenges to learning - including limited English skills and lack of health care. These problems cannot be solved without parental involvement, yet parents often live in fear of deportation and have no political recourse. But there is a network of parents, teachers and community leaders working to bridge this gap. Michael May tells us about the Alliance School movement.

A group of students with laptops huddles around teacher Gabriel Estrada, in the 5th grade classroom of Austin's Zavala Elementary. It's their first experience with word processing.

Zavala's modest brick building sits in the oldest Mexican-American neighborhood in Austin, where it's been fostering the aspirations of immigrants - legal and illegal - since 1936. Paola, an undocumented Mexican immigrant whose two children attend Zavala, couldn't afford to send them to school in Mexico, so she smuggled them over the border.

"It was difficult in my country," said Paola, "because my children weren't going to school. My greatest desire was that my children would go to school."

But now that they're in school, Paola says she feels powerless to help them succeed. "How do I make sure that my children do well?" she said. "I can't read. They would send papers to my house, and I couldn't read them. And the truth was, I didn't have anyone I could trust. Not anyone."

For most of its history, Zavala Elementary had been similarly isolated - by racial segregation and unequal resources. By the early 1990s, it was one of the worst performing school in Austin. "The kids were not necessarily focused on education; it was just a matter of basic obligation," said Gabriel Estrada, who began teaching here in 1991.

"They have to be here at school, once the bell rings let's get out of here. You had a lot of teachers burning out, they would throw their hands up and say 'Look, I give 110 percent and I don't see anything coming out of it," Mr. Estrada said.

The situation at Zavala was similar to what was happening at other poor, minority schools across the state. But a radical new approach to education was in the works.

It began in places like Dolores Catholic Church, an unlikely setting for a secular political movement, but an appropriate source for its values. As activist Ernesto Cortez organized meetings here and in other houses of worship around Austin, he was creating a social movement based on moral convictions and personal relationships. "We teach people how to hold each other accountable, to deals that they make with each other, so there is trust that begans to builds up and there is a kind of critical friendship that begins to emerge," he said.

By the mid-1980s, the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation, the IAF, was winning major victories for immigrants and the poor across Texas: running water for the shanty-towns along the Mexican border and funding for indigent health care and the state's most dilapidated schools. But Mr. Cortez knew money alone wasn't enough to help kids succeed. He began sending IAF organizers to create "alliance schools" - advocacy groups that had teachers, parents and administrators working together.

"And so you develop this kind of culture of a learning community, that critiques one another, evaluates one another, teaches one another, mentors one another and we learn with each other and hopefully this attitude of learning begins to be inculcated among the students," said Mr. Cortez. In 1991, Zavala students were performing academically at about half the district average on mandated standardized tests, and attendance was dismal. Principal Alejandro Melton invited an IAF organizer into his school to meet with parents. It was the first time parents like Lourdes Zammora faced just how poorly their children were doing.

"After throwing blame around, the parents the teachers and everyone else, we spoke with the organizer and realized that wasn't going to work," said Ms. Zammora. "We realized that we were going to have to get organized and start working together."

The first battle they won was getting a health clinic at the school. Teacher Gabriel Estrada says, When it opened in 1993, attendance improved dramatically, and "when people saw that we were able to do this, they said, 'well, let's go do this other thing.'"

"Today the school is recognized as a blue ribbon school," said Lourdes Zamarro. "One day my daughter came home all excited about what was going on at the school, and my older sons said, 'Mom, why wasn't this going on when we were in school.' And I told them it was because we didn't know better. We didn't realize that we were stakeholders in the school. We didn't know that we could make a difference in the school. And now we do."

Lourdes Zamarro is now a full-time paid organizer with Austin Interfaith, the local chapter of the IAF. As for Zavala Elementary, with the alliance philosophy firmly in place, the school changed its curriculum, started an after-school program and hired Maria Rosas Garcia to work full-time with parents.

"The main thing about being part of an alliance school is listening," stressed Ms. Garcia. "If you really listen to someone, they do have the answer themselves."

Ms. Garcia helps parents with everything from English-language classes to family counseling. For undocumented mothers like Paola, Ms. Garcia is a lifeline. Last year, the Austin school district planned to eliminate the parent specialist position. Despite her fear of encountering immigration officials, and her limited command of English, Paola went to the school board meeting and spoke out.

"I was so nervous, but they're going to help us," she said. "They're going to understand and pay attention to us becasuse we're doing this work together. There was my husband, my kids, and so many other mothers. And they said they would put the money back in the schools. 'Oh wow,' I said, 'what a beautiful thing.' I can't vote, but I feel like all those who can, vote for us."

The IAF estimates it got 100,000 voters to the polls in the 2002 Texas election, supporting an agenda that included immigrant rights, increased school funding and better access to health care. The IAF is currently building organizations in California, New York, Illinois and other states. It's a movement that plans to change the face of American politics, one relationship at a time.