Equity & Diversity

PTA Seeks to Raise Number of Hispanic Members

By Linda Jacobson — June 11, 2003 7 min read
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Rafael Monroy, a father of four who lives in downtown San Diego, felt passionate about parent involvement. Yet it wasn’t until a few years ago that he discovered that the PTA—in his eyes, “a bunch of old ladies baking cupcakes"—had anything to offer a Latino father.

Sandra Villegas-Duvanich was certainly familiar with the mission of the PTA. She’s the principal of Loma Verde Elementary School in Chula Vista, south of the city.

In that job, though, she saw that Hispanic parents were not represented in leadership positions, and she decided that the PTA offered them ways to take responsibility.

Ester Mangahas, the mother of a 10th grade boy, didn’t really know anything about the PTA when she was tapped to be the president of the chapter at Bethune Elementary School here. But the experience has helped her gain the confidence to speak up about school issues.

The reasons the three became involved in the PTA are diverse, but each is now playing an important part in the Chicago-based National PTA’s drive to recruit more Hispanic and Spanish-speaking members and start new chapters in predominantly Hispanic schools.

Now, as the director of parent involvement and community relations for an education collaborative in the City Heights neighborhood, Mr. Monroy said he appreciates “the tools of the PTA.”

“We have the very disciplined structure that the PTA provides, but with the color and the flavor of the Latino culture,” he said. “In communities like ours, you have to customize it.”

In San Diego County and neighboring Imperial County alone, state and local PTA officials will try to establish 25 new chapters—or units—and sign up more than 6,000 new members. The goals are similar in Miami and in southern Texas, the two other sites involved in the project.

Recognizing the growth of the Hispanic school-age population and the achievement gap between Hispanic students and their non-Hispanic white peers, the National PTA announced last fall that it would begin training emerging leaders to encourage membership in the parent-teacher associations and educate parents in Hispanic communities about the importance of parent involvement.

“We can no longer ignore them,” said Sue King, the membership director for the California PTA and one of five mentors working with “protégés,” such as Mr. Monroy, in San Diego and Imperial counties.

The question, however, is whether this 100-year-old American institution will be able to attract parents who might have different ideas about involvement.

One development working in the PTA’s favor is that the organization may soon have a very visible example of its effort to understand the needs of Hispanic families.

Ricardo L. Valencia, a parent in Alexandria, Va., and a member of the national association’s board of directors, is on track to be the next president-elect. If he wins at the national convention later this month, he will automatically assume the presidency in 2005.

The Hispanic-outreach project, which began earlier this year, comes at a time when some states have seen a decline in PTA membership. In California, for example, membership is down 4 percent since last year—a trend Ms. King said can be attributed to a variety of factors, including a dues increase, an economy that has forced many families to cut back on charitable contributions, and demographic shifts.

Cultural Differences

In launching the outreach project, the PTA is encountering deeply held beliefs among some Hispanic and other immigrant families about the roles of parents and educators. It is commonly said that many Hispanic parents think it’s inappropriate to question the authority of teachers and administrators.

“They are very shy. And if they say anything, they’re afraid they said it wrong,” Ms. Mangahas, a native of the Philippines, said about Filipino parents. They share many of the attitudes of Hispanic parents, she said.

But that perception can be a stereotype, said Joyce Epstein, an education professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and an expert on parent and community involvement.

Hispanic parents, she said, “are interested, they’re able, and programs and partnerships can be inclusive of all families.” Immigrant parents might feel intimidated by schools, she added, because the schools in their home countries might not be as welcoming.

But Armandina Garza, the family-involvement coordinator at the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based Hispanic advocacy and research organization, said that because Latin America is relatively homogeneous, parents usually have a high level of trust in teachers—something they often don’t bring with them to their new country.

The most critical step for schools to take to involve Hispanic parents—or any parents who are not fluent in English—is to translate materials into their language and offer translators at school meetings, Ms. Epstein said. In fact, one of the objectives of the PTA’s initiative is to produce documents and other resources in Spanish—items that PTA leaders nationwide are already requesting.

Ms. Garza added that the PTA will need to look for nontraditional ways for parents to be involved, not just through raising money or by helping teachers in the classroom.

“That is not going to work with Latino parents,” Ms. Garza said. “There are different ways for parents to be involved.” She cited, for example, making sure children are ready for school by being well fed and having their homework completed.

Even if the ranks of the organization don’t grow significantly through the outreach effort, PTA leaders say they still want Hispanic parents to understand the value of participation in school.

“We want to provide more options for parents,” said Carla Niño, the first vice president of the California PTA. “All of the research shows that the more you’re involved in your kids’ lives, the better they do.”

By beginning the Hispanic-outreach effort, the National PTA is entering a new phase as an organization. Surprisingly, the national association has never collected members’ names—only the number of members at schools with PTA chapters. Leaders don’t know how many Hispanic members they currently have, just as they do not have a breakdown of other ethnic or racial groups. The group reports it has a total of more than 6 million members at roughly 26,000 schools nationwide.

In the three California, Florida, and Texas outreach sites, however, organizers will now be required to record the names of new members recruited through the initiative. The goal, Ms. Niño said, is to create a membership database and possibly an e- mail list.

Once the two-year pilot project is completed, she said, the PTA hopes to learn techniques that can be used to target other underrepresented groups as well.

Personal Growth

To be chosen for the project, the protégés had to be bilingual and had to have demonstrated an interest in working with other parents.

“We looked for people who were interested in developing Hispanic leaders and who were interested in being developed themselves,” said Ms. Niño.

PTA involvement, added Ms. King, the California membership director, is often a steppingstone to other political activity. PTA presidents sometimes run for school board or other elected offices. That is why, Ms. King said, it will be important for the current protégés to eventually turn around and mentor other leaders.

“You don’t just establish a PTA unit and leave them floundering,” Ms. Niño said.

A training conference— focusing on such topics as organizing a local unit, approaching administrators, and lobbying for legislation—was held in Chicago earlier this year. The mentors and protégés have also been attending gatherings in their own states—experiences that are new for many of the parents.

Ms. Mangahas said she never really volunteered to be a protégé. “I sort of reluctantly said, ‘Yes, I can speak Spanish and English, and you can put my name down if you want to,’'' she explained.

The training has given her a new level of confidence, however.

“When I went to Chicago, I sort of came out of my cocoon,” she said, adding that she has begun to advise other parents as well.

“I tell them, ‘I started the way you are—just sitting there and doing nothing.’ Now I can go out and say, ‘What do you want from the PTA?’''

Rick Mendiondo, a mentor from Harlingen, Texas, and an area field representative for the Texas PTA, said he tells parents that even if they’ve been disappointed by their involvement with PTA in the past, they should give it another try. He added that he believes no other organization can offer parent volunteers the support and structure that they can get from the PTA—a message he’s now sharing with other parents in his community near the U.S.-Mexican border.

“Those people that sit at the back of the meetings—those are the ones we want to bring up to the front,” he said. “We don’t want to recycle the same officers.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

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