What do communities get out of it?
A very poor, black mother in a fringe neighborhood in Porto Alegre, Brazil, drew herself up with pride as she told me about her recent meeting with the Mayor to discuss the problems of municipal schools. Although the 33-year-old mother of two can barely read and write and never thought she had any special skill, she earned the respect of her community and the admiration of her children because of her invitation as a parent representative.
This woman was one of the many low-income parents (mostly mothers) I am interviewing for my doctoral thesis at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. These parents have been participating actively in the schools;I want to investigate what communities get out of this sort of involvement.
I chose Porto Alegre, in Brazil’s southern region, as my research site because the municipality is considered a paradigm of community participation in a public educational system. For the last eight years, a progressive municipal administration has enabled community members to decide on the allocation of public investments , through the “orÃ§amento participativo” (participatory budget). Community members also help to elect school principals, and school councils formed by teachers, school administrators and parents. The councils also have been given stronger deliberative power.
Brazil, like several other developing countries, is undertaking major educational reforms based on the international trend of decentralization and greater school autonomy as key strategies to promote schools’ efficiency and effectiveness. A core assumption of the Brazilian educational reform is that the adoption of participatory practices by the educational system will generate benefits for schools, students and their communities.
However, more comprehensive and consistent empirical evidence needs to be gathered to document this viewpoint. To date, community participation in schools is generally defended with one of two arguments: an ideological discourse claiming the right and responsibility of citizens to participate in public institutions; and another argument, based upon an extrapolation of the evidence, produced mainly in the context of industrialized countries, of positive effects of parents involvement on students’ academic achievement.
The idea that participation can be a formative and empowering experience for community members is particularly appealing for countries needing to consolidate democratic regimes through greater social participation. However, few research efforts have been designed to investigate to what extent participating in public institutions, like schools, can indeed constitute opportunities to learn and practice skills that will enhance personal and social development. Moreover, an important voice is often missing in the debate of community participation in schools; the voice of those who participate, who choose to devote time and energy to a public institution: What do they get out of it?
My study focuses on parents participating in two schools of a low income district. Although the parents have a similar socio-economic background, community participation in the schools has taken very different forms. In one school, community participation was stimulated and organized by the Principal, who created a Mothers’ Club, and allocated time and special funds to mobilize parents to get involved in the school. An active group of mothers is presently participating in different activities at the school.
The other school is located in a housing project occupied by a group of squatters, who took over buildings under construction which had been abandoned after the contractor went bankrupt. A strong residents’ association successfully lobbied for the construction of the school and the provision of other social services. The representatives of the association are currently involved at the school, although the principal complains about the low level of family participation.
I’m only now beginning to analyze the data. However, the interviews with parents involved at the two schools are revealing to me a fascinating range of perceptions: from a total unawareness of the effects of the experience of participation in their lives to reports of radical changes of self-image and acquisition of personal and professional skills.
One mother said that by participating at the school, she “became someone in the community”; she is recognized at the streets and was invited to join the residents’ association. When her son became sick, she received help and solidarity from people whom she did not even know- “but they knew me because I participate at the school,”she explained.
In another interview, I learned that a young mother of four children, a middle-school drop-out, is now looking for a secretarial job. says she feels capable of working as a secretary and is looking for a job, something she had been afraid to do before. After painstakingly learning the skills to produce the records of the School Council’s meetings, she realized she could take on the professional challenge in the job market. Over and over, Interesting connections are made over and over between participation and professional opportunities by the parents interviewed.
In the voices of all people I am interviewing, a very concrete and intense effect of participating in the school has been breaking social isolation. Parents report participation in the school helps them to feel part of a community. They realize they are not alone in the search for better life conditions for them and for their kids. Several women reported that participating in the school brought them back to social life, after being isolated in the domestic world of child-rearing.
The opportunity to establish personal relationships with teachers and with other mothers at the school is also mentioned as an important effect of participation. These relationships seem to be important in the sense of providing emotional support and friendship, but they also become a source of learning. Parents report that closer personal relationships with teachers, for example, are help them understand what their children are learning and to advocate for adequate attention to their children’s needs.
One mother said that she learns new words and new ways to look at her personal problems during her conversations with her daughter’s teacher. Another mother says that she learned where to look for help, and has followed the orientation of the school principal in seeking financial aid so that her daughter can attend college.
More than providing direct answers about the impact of community participation, this group of Brazilian parents are providing reassurances of the need and importance of asking the question. Little is known about what parents and other community members think and feel about their participation in schools. The investigations are importance not only in order to incorporate the voices of the community in the debate, but to understand how, and under what conditions, participation in school can become a learning and empowering experience for community members.
Even the most skeptical about benefits of social participation would be intrigued by the confidence and excitement with which this group of Brazilian parents describes the effects they attribute to their participation. Which generates a new question: if it can so good for community members to participate, why do only a few of them do so? How can the empowering experience be translated for others to encourage more participation?
Lúcia Dellagnelo is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Human Development and Psychology at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She works as an independent consultant for projects in the area of education and community development in Brazil and is currently involved in projects of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the World Bank in Latin America.
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