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"Why Do They Give the Good Classes to Some and Not to Others?" Latino Parent Narratives of Struggle in a College Access Program


by Susan Auerbach - 2002

This paper examines personal narratives of struggle with schooling from working-class Latino parents whose children were in an experimental college access program at a diverse, metropolitan high school. The voices of parents of color have traditionally been silenced in schools and muted in educational research, despite their potential to shape student careers and aspirations. Drawing on narrative analysis, critical race theory, and sociocultural theory to inform data from an ethnographic case study, I discuss the role of agency and oppositional voice in parents’ stories. I delineate three narrative types that emerged in interviews and a series of parent meetings around college access issues: life stories of parents’ own struggles as students; stories of bureaucratic rebuff in parents’ encounters with staff in their children’s schools; and counterstories that challenge official narratives of schooling. I argue that the sharing of such stories in free spaces is instrumental in the building of parents’ social networks, the negotiation of conflict with the school, and the formation of empowering family identities. If educators join the dialogue, such story exchange can offer insight into students’ multiple worlds and pave the way for improved family-school relations.

This paper examines personal narratives of struggle with schooling from working-class Latino parents whose children were in an experimental college access program at a diverse, metropolitan high school. The voices of parents of color have traditionally been silenced in schools and muted in educational research, despite their potential to shape student careers and aspirations. Drawing on narrative analysis, critical race theory, and sociocultural theory to inform data from an ethnographic case study, I discuss the role of agency and oppositional voice in parents’ stories. I delineate three narrative types that emerged in interviews and a series of parent meetings around college access issues: life stories of parents’ own struggles as students; stories of bureaucratic rebuff in parents’ encounters with staff in their children’s schools; and counter stories that challenge official narratives of schooling. I argue that the sharing of such stories in free spaces is instrumental in the building of parents’ social networks, the negotiation of conflict with the school, and the formation of empowering family identities. If educators join the dialogue, such story exchange can offer insight into students’ multiple worlds and pave the way for improved family-school relations.


Parents of color, like their children, arrive at schools with complex narratives of the purposes, possibilities, and disappointments of schooling. They view the educational process through their own experience of school as students, as well as their contact with schools as parents and their efforts to support their children’s learning at home (Dodd & Konzal, 1999; Fine & Weis, 1998; Lareau & Horvat, 1999). The culturally patterned and transmitted stories of parents, like those of students, mediate their understandings and actions around schooling (Rogers, 2000). Parents’ stories of schooling are symbolic vehicles of family “habitus,” or the options they see as appropriate, desirable, and feasible for their children. As such, these stories may powerfully shape students’ K–12 careers and postsecondary aspirations. These narratives may also reveal critical parts of the larger story of inequities in education. Yet the voices of parents of color are typically silenced in schools and muted in educational research (Delgado-Gaitan, 1991; Delpit, 1988; Fine, 1991, 1993; Meyers, Dowdy, & Paterson, 2000; Villenas & Deyhle, 1999).


Listening to the stories of parents of color may help urban educators and policy makers bridge the divide between students’ home cultures and the culture of the school. Parents and schools have traditionally been worlds apart in their approach to education (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 1978). The gulf between parents of color and schools remains especially wide, separated by legacies of racism, deficit thinking, and mutual distrust (Comer, 1980; Delgado-Gaitan, 1991; Fordham, 1996; Lawrence-Lightfoot, 1981). One step toward addressing inequities in education is to delineate the multiple worlds of marginalized students and to “unpackage culture” within those worlds (Phelan, Davidson, & Cao, 1991; Weisner, Gallimore, & Jordan, 1988), particularly the less-documented family beliefs and practices of the secondary school years. This is urgent for research on Latino education in light of the persistence of high dropout rates and low rates of university eligibility and attendance (Gandara, 1998). It is also timely in light of increased calls for parent involvement in education, particularly recent federal and state policy initiatives that stress parent involvement in college planning.1


This paper examines three types of narratives that emerged in ethnographic research with working-class Latino parents in a college access program at a diverse, metropolitan high school: (1) life stories of parents’ struggle with schooling as students; (2) stories of bureaucratic rebuff in parents’ encounters with school staff as parents; and (3) counter stories that challenge official narratives of schooling. After reviewing key themes in the literature on narrative and parent participation in schooling, I describe the research setting and methods. Then I draw on narrative analysis, sociocultural theory, and critical race theory to interpret three emblematic parent stories. I show how the sharing of such stories in a college access program opened up “free space” for authentic parent learning and support, as well as the critical questioning of school structures (Fine & Weis, 1998). It helped previously isolated parents to build social networks and a sense of commonality, while providing them with a forum in which to negotiate conflict with the school. It also helped parents to envision new roles and identities for themselves in the pursuit of educational access for their children. Parent storytelling in school contexts has the potential not only to inform educators’ view of students’ multiple worlds but also to enhance parent empowerment and family-school relations.

THE NARRATIVE TURN IN EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH


Recent interest in personal narratives emerged as part of the postmodern turn in educational research and the rise of critical ethnography, multicultural scholarship, and feminist theory, as well as qualitative research methods generally (see, e.g., Bloom, 1998; Burdell & Swadener, 1999; Lincoln, 1993; Riessman, 1993). Narrative research challenges the assumptions of dominant discourses and positivism, concerning itself instead with highlighting marginalized voices, multiple voices within narratives, and reflexive relationships between the researcher and the researched.


More than an account of sequenced events, narrative is a primary means of organizing and making sense of human experience, as well as transmitting culture (Bruner, 1991). Stories inform our “cultural identities,” writes McLaren (1993), and “our narrative identities determine our social action as agents of history and the constraints we place on the identities of others” (p. 203). By focusing on the narratives of the disenfranchised, researchers counter deficit models with portraits of cultural strengths and individual or collective agency (Villenas & Deyhle, 1999).


Many scholars turn to narrative to study the instantiation of power relations and oppositional voice. “To be worth telling, a tale must be about how an implicit canonical script has been breached, violated, or deviated from” so as to delegitimize convention (Bruner, 1991, p. 11). The narratives of marginalized groups, as embodiments of experiential knowledge, are central to the educational research of critical race theorists (Delgado, 2000; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Solorzano & Yosso, 2000). These researchers stress the value of “counter stories” that challenge the status quo and “majoritarian” institutional narratives while building a sense of community. As Delgado (2000) explains, “The outgroup creates its own stories, which circulate within the group as a kind of counter-reality” and serve as a tool for cultural survival (p. 60).


The sharing of stories is an integral part of learning as a social process in informal communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). Stories are prominent among the artifacts of a community’s shared repertoire, giving form to common understandings and becoming a “focus for the negotiation of meaning” (Wenger, 1998). In one such community, the site of this study, Rogers (2000) suggests that learning results from “forging new relationships to stories of self, school, and future” over time, with the realization that dominant discourses are “open to interpretation and reimagining” (p. 10).


The growing literature on narrative has sparked a new awareness of people in schools as storied beings and in personal narratives as windows into the grand narrative of the black box of schooling (Burdell & Swadener, 1999; Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Lawrence-Lightfoot & Hoffman, 1998). Lincoln (1995) suggests that teachers must believe in the importance of “the storied pasts [students] bring with them to the classroom and the storied meaning they make of their lives and their schooling” (p. 90). Likewise, educators must recognize how parents’ personal experience shapes their “mental models” of and dealings with schools (Dodd & Konzal 1999), just as teachers’ biographies shape their approach to the profession (Ayers, 1989; Ladson-Billings, 1994).

PARENTS AS STORIED BEINGS: MARGINALIZATION AND POWER RELATIONS


Parents of color come from rich storytelling traditions that are rarely acknowledged or tapped as a resource in school settings. Immigrant Latino parents draw on family stories and narrative consejos (teachings, advice) to motivate their children to do well in school and advance in life (Delgado-Gaitan, 1991, 1994b; Gandara, 1995; Valdés, 1996; Villanueva, 1996). For parents with little formal education or knowledge of the American school system, these stories become the main tool for guiding children’s academic and moral educación (Villenas & Deyhle, 1999) and an instance of behind-the-scenes, “invisible strategies” of educational support (Villanueva & Hubbard, 1994). One of the challenges of current research is to make such strategies visible to counter stereotypes of uninvolved minority parents.


The marginalized social location of parents of color at schools complicates their storytelling repertoire and opportunities to be heard. These parents and their children not only face more institutional barriers, such as discriminatory tracking, but also have fewer resources for overcoming them, such as high-status cultural and social capital. They are less likely to know fellow parents at the school through social networks or school activities, further isolating them (Delgado-Gaitan, 1991; Fordham, 1996; Gandara, 1995; Lareau, 1989; Moles, 1993; Yonezawa, 1997). Parents’ accounts of frustration with, confusion about, and alienation from the system show the many ways in which their concerns are delegitimized by school authorities (Fine, 1991; Lareau & Horvat, 1999; Meyers et al., 2000; Romo & Falbo, 1996; Shannon, 1996). Not surprisingly, many parents fear reprisals for voicing critique and silence themselves.


Traditionally, school folk have dominated the discourse in encounters with parents. School events, such as Back to School Night, are typically orchestrated by staff for the containment of conflict and the assertion of the school’s authority (Delgado-Gaitan, 1994a; Lawrence-Lightfoot, 1978; Van Galen, 1987). Expected to show polite, deferential compliance with school requests, parents are often heard only insofar as it suits the school (Lareau, 1989; Lareau & Horvat, 1999). This silencing tendency is particularly pronounced in urban, secondary schools, where parents are a “site of neglect” (Fine, 1991). One study of several diverse California high schools, for instance, found that most teachers did not even want to hear from parents unless the teachers contacted them first (Dornbusch & Glasgow, 1996).


Parents’ stories of schooling are part of the larger story of family-school relations in particular contexts. I view these stories through the lens of power relations, in which conflict between families and schools is endemic and in which a mismatch between family culture and school culture exacerbates tensions (Comer, 1980; Darder, 1991; Lawrence-Lightfoot, 1978, 1981). As outsiders to the world of schools, parents are essentially powerless (Fine, 1993). Latino parents with low educational attainment experience the power differential with schools as a sense of inferiority, shame, embarrassment, and helplessness (Delgado-Gaitan, 1991; Gandara, 1995; Romo & Falbo, 1996). In place of the status quo in which schools dictate the terms of family participation, Delgado-Gaitan (1994a) offers an empowerment model of family-school relations, in which power is shared, influence is two-way, and parties are mutually accommodating. Under this model, like the free spaces proposed by Fine and Weis (1998), diverse parents’ voices would be welcomed and their stories integral to the discourse of schooling. Power relations would be named and matters of negotiation.


Eliciting parents’ stories rather than trying to contain them may promote greater parent participation in schools and improved family-school relations—if educators are ready to listen. Including parents’ stories in educational research on critical personal narratives may, in turn, offer insight into the “individual and imaginative aspects of agency” that shape student careers (Burdell & Swadener, 1999).

RESEARCH SETTING AND METHODS


Data for this paper emerged during ethnographic research for a dissertation on the role of parents of color in promoting their children’s college access (Auerbach, 2001). Though I did not set out to study parent stories, I was struck by parents’ propensity to frame their response to questions in the form of personal narrative and to tell and retell their stories at school meetings and individual interviews. As I noted the emotional force within and connections among parents’ accounts, I began to explore the role of story in parents’ presentation of self and interaction with the school. What types of stories do working-class Latino parents tell in and about schools? Why and how do they convey certain events and beliefs in narrative form? What can families and schools learn from their stories of struggle?


The study was conducted at a large, racially and socioeconomically diverse high school in the Los Angeles metropolitan area (12% Black, 46% White, 8% Asian American, and 34% Latino), known for its strong college preparatory program. Equity issues have been the focus of reform at “Pacific High” since 1994, with efforts to address the stark race- and class-based divide in student achievement and postsecondary outcomes. One such initiative was the Futures Project, a UCLA-school partnership that combined an experimental college access program with a longitudinal study of the trajectories of 30 students of color through high school and beyond. The project fostered a college-going culture and critical consciousness through social studies classes, summer seminars on the sociology of education, college trips, and social events(see Rogers, 2000). The project’s monthly, bilingual Futures & Families meetings, which I organized, engaged parents in learning and mutual support around college access topics, from demystifying tracking and transcripts to searching for colleges and scholarships on the Internet.


Both student and parent programs in the Futures Project encouraged the expression of voice and frank talk about race and class, as in the personal testimony of guest speakers of color at family meetings. Through stories, families learned about options and strategies for achieving higher education—Wenger’s (1998) “possible trajectories”—that they might not have known about or deemed within reach. This framing of complex information as narrative at meetings helped put families at ease and, I believe, made parents more willing to share their personal stories.


Participants in the larger study, including the four parents highlighted in this paper, were drawn from working-class Latino and Black parents of Futures students who had no 4-year college experience. The purposeful sample consisted of 16 parents (11 Mexican and Central American immigrants, two U.S.-born Chicanas, and three Blacks), who were selected for diversity in parent race/ethnicity, educational attainment, and English fluency, as well as student GPA and gender. This sample is not representative of the Futures parents, parents of color at Pacific High School, or working-class parents of color generally. As in other qualitative case studies with small samples, findings are meant to build theory (analytic generalizability) rather than be generalized to populations (Yin, 1993).


The main method of data collection was a series of in-depth, semistructured parent interviews in English or Spanish during students’ 10th through 12th-grade years. All interviews were taped and transcribed verbatim in English or Spanish. Interviews were supplemented by field notes from 3 years of participant-observation of family-school interactions and Futures Project activities, ranging from College Fairs to parent-teacher conferences, as well as Futures Project data, such as student interviews, school documents, and transcripts of parent meetings.


Data collection and analysis were ongoing and simultaneous as part of the iterative process of qualitative inquiry. For this paper, interview and meeting transcripts were scrutinized for evidence of parent stories, defined broadly here as condensed versions of events containing a social actor, an action, and a goal or predicament that are told to convey a moral or conviction (Bruner, 1991; Rubin & Rubin, 1995). I was particularly interested in stories that were sustained or recurring, with articulate commentary related to parent roles in schooling or college pathways. The stories were analyzed within a scheme of theoretical, topical, and in vivo codes on parent roles to identify emerging themes and categories. Case summaries, data displays, and narrative analysis revealed further patterns and irregularities in the data and created an audit trail for findings. In the larger study of which this is a part, the extended period of fieldwork, use of thick description, and multiple methods for triangulation of data helped strengthen validity and reliability, according to current standards for qualitative research (Merriam, 2001). Validity was also enhanced by colleague checks, member checks, and analytical memos to monitor researcher subjectivity (Peshkin, 1988).


Parents’ storied meanings were evident throughout the data in the larger study. However, the stories of the four Latino parents discussed in this paper stood out as particularly salient and intriguing for their form, content, and function. They are rich in detailed, dramatic expression and emotional force, using accounts of events to convey key morals, beliefs, or critiques. They encapsulate concerns that extend beyond the narrators’ personal circumstances, echoing fragments of stories recounted by other Futures parents and salient themes in the literature on marginalized parents and students. The stories served as signature pieces for the parents—reference points to which they anchored their identity as parents of aspiring college students in interviews, meetings, and informal encounters. Both the form and function of the stories suggest three distinct narrative genres (cautionary tale, story of rebuff, and counter story) that offer insight into family-school relations. These features made the stories promising as texts for analysis, just as the qualities of certain informants offer researchers greater opportunity for learning (Stake, 1994).


Overall, the four parent narrators in this paper were better educated, more fluent in English, and more articulate and outspoken than most Futures parents. Though not representative of a larger population, their backgrounds spanned three key points on a continuum of Latino immigration experience, from a Mexican native who immigrated as an adult (Manuel Castillo) to two Mexican natives who immigrated as youth (Luis Garcia and Estelle Guerra) to a U.S.-born child of Mexican immigrants (Alicia Garcia). The focus of these parents’ struggles—with family and community expectations, with school practices and policies—both mirror and shape the struggles of Latino students with schools and therefore merit further study.


Inevitably, my positionality and bias as an active participant in the research setting affected the research. Through reflective memos and debriefings with colleagues and the parents themselves, I tried to ensure disciplined subjectivity, or awareness of reactivity (Peshkin, 1988). I also tried to “foster the relational process” and “work the hyphen” or distance between researcher and subject that Fine and Weis (1998) recommend. As a White, middle-class researcher, I am not privy to insiders’ understandings of the lives of working-class Latinos. However, as a middle-aged parent of a child who struggles in school and as a former parent activist in an urban district, I empathized with parents’ fears and frustrations. Although I have tried to convey and interpret parent stories in the spirit in which they were told, inevitably there are alternative readings of these texts (Lincoln, 1993; Riessman, 1993).

PARENTS’ LIFE STORIES: THE NEED FOR “PUSH”


From the inception of the program, many parents at Futures & Families meetings offered pieces of their life stories as students by way of introducing themselves and prefacing their remarks on their children’s education.2 “This opportunity was never there for me,” a Black mother ruefully observed at our first meeting. Immigrant parents often referred to their own limited schooling and advised their children not to follow their example. Two mothers voiced fears that their children would get “trapped,” as they did, in community college, and one of the few parents who attended university recalled that she felt “lost” there and assumed that her son would have the same reaction. Relating these biographical fragments was especially important for parents who were alumni of the high school, wary of having their children face the same barriers that they did. Parents’ grounding of their opinions and beliefs about schooling in their life stories established not only their credibility and relevant experience but also their identity as individuals within a faceless high school bureaucracy. Thus signaling their identity, they began to make connections to other parents whose experience resonated with their own.


Alicia Garcia, a Chicana hairdresser with some community college experience, frequently inserted her life narrative into interviews and her vocal participation at meetings. Her husband, Luis Garcia, a factory worker who immigrated from Mexico as a teenager and dropped out of high school in the United States, also referred to his life history as a counterexample for what his son must take care to avoid. This couple often pointed to the contrast between their upbringing and their attempts at a different approach to parenting, as in these stories from an interview in English:


Alicia: Since Ernesto was little, I felt that a lot of habits have to start when they’re, like, five. So I pushed him to do his homework as soon as he got home. . . . I have family members who’d sometimes say, “Oh, let him, he could do it later,” or “he’s a good boy,” ’cause sometimes he’d want to go out and play, and I’m like, “No, he’s gotta do his homework first.” ’Cause I wanted that habit in there. When I was younger, my mom was a housecleaner. And these people, that I went to their houses in big homes, probably Brentwood and that side, their kids, I noticed, would be so organized, and I wasn’t. I’m like, “I’m the lucky one, right? I don’t have to come home and do my homework like you do.” Now that I’m an adult, and before I had my kids, I go, “I wish my parents had pushed me like that.” So as soon as I had my kids, I learned from them that you do have to work with your children to make them do things like that. . . .


Luis: That’s a bad habit among Hispanics. ’Cause I grew up the same way. My parents didn’t push me to do my homework, they didn’t push me to do, you know, study. It was pretty much, “OK, you can do it”—left you alone, not realizing that you have to push ’em. Or else they just fall behind. Right now, the way the world’s going, you have to be ahead.


Alicia: [K]ids like my kids and parents like me, like I said before—I made it to [community] college but I didn’t get that extra push any time in my life.


The bitter, emphatic tone with which the Garcias discussed their thwarted student careers suggests that they saw these as key disappointments in their lives. This experience colored much of how they related to their son’s schooling; as Alicia Garcia remarked at the start of another story, “I always relate it to me.” Telling and retelling personal narratives allowed the Garcias to engage in life review and process the resentment they felt toward their families, as well as the alienation they felt from what they saw as the bad habits of traditional Latino child-rearing practices.3 Though problematic in terms of the Garcias’ identity, the evocation of this frame of reference was common in my interviews with Futures parents, with parents often measuring themselves in comparison with less-involved parents of previous generations or of newer immigrant groups.


The Garcias evolved a philosophy of proactive parent involvement, especially the need to push children to succeed, in response to what they saw as the tough lessons of their youth and the pattern of low educational attainment for Latinos. For them, pushing meant not only monitoring homework and urging better grades but also limiting outside activities and making decisions for their children to ensure that they went the “right way” in life.4 The alternative to pushing was “letting go too soon” or failing to provide guidance so that children “fall behind.” Other parents in the program also referred to the need for push as a source of both student achievement and family tensions, wondering, for example, “when to push and when to pull back” in homework struggles and admitting, “I don’t know how far I can go with pushing my daughter because we really get into it.”


Parents’ life stories related to schooling provide glimpses into how parents conceive and enact their role in their children’s education, like Alicia Garcia’s insistence on ingraining good study habits. Such stories suggest the source and extent of parents’ funds of knowledge, as well as cultural and social capital, in relation to school norms for parent involvement. As Alicia’s account shows, working-class minority parents draw on multiple cultural repertoires to make sense of schooling, including ostensibly middleclass messages on parenting styles and academic monitoring (Clark, 1983; Gonzalez, 1996; Lamont & Lareau, 1988; Reese, Balzano, Gallimore, & Goldenberg, 1995). However, as Gandara and Bial (1999) note, if exposure to middle-class status or cultural capital has been “too tenuous and of too short duration,” it may not “confer the full benefit” for their children in promoting school success (p. 160). Thus, parent stories point to areas where families feel they need more information and support from the school to achieve their goals.


Sharing fragments of her story publicly and hearing other parents’ stories at Futures & Families meetings had a palpable effect on Alicia Garcia. She became visibly more relaxed about her child’s progress and open to dialogue with teachers, rather than defensive and confrontational. She was stunned to find common ground with Latinos who shared her past struggles and goals for their children:


It’s nice to get with a group and see other Latino parents there with other kids that have the same idea as you . . . so that parents struggling with their kids [will] not feel by themselves. . . . When I go into this program and I saw those parents sitting there, it just felt good. It just felt like, ahh! [sighs], like a support group, you know?


Alicia began making connections with other parents at the school and taking note of how they approached similar challenges. As her son turned 17, she became a better listener to his stories, more able to separate his life experience from her own, and more flexible in her approach to parenting a teenager. “I’ve let go of a lot,” she admitted.


The Garcias’ life stories are meant to serve as cautionary tales, or counter role models, for their children and other families. Yet such stories may not carry the motivational force for students that their parents intend. Other studies suggest that parents’ dire warnings not to follow their example may be ineffective or inappropriate (Valdés 1996), or that they must be accompanied by some positive influence or resource, such as strong family reading habits, to contribute to student success (Gandara, 1995; Reese et al., 1995; Villanueva, 1996). More research is needed on the construction of parents’ cautionary tales as a genre and on their effects on student careers. What is clear is that telling life stories around schooling helped the Garcias to articulate a parent identity that departed from family tradition and to sustain a commitment to breaking the cycle of underachievement.

PARENTS’ ENCOUNTERS WITH SCHOOL STAFF: STORIES OF REBUFF


One of the most persistent parent concerns at Futures & Families meetings and in interviews was dissatisfaction in dealings with school staff, especially counselors in their role as gatekeepers. A young Salvadoran mother who was an alumnus of the school asked how she could change her child’s counselor so that her daughter would not have the same bad experience that she did—with the same counselor) Alicia Garcia described the “runaround” she got when she asked a counselor for a scholarship packet. A Black, college-educated father told the group how he had to intercede with counselors to make sure his child stayed in a gifted program in middle school and how he was unable to convince high school counselors to place his other child in Honors classes. “My son was doing badly all year, but the counselor did nothing to help him or find out why this was happening,” a Guatemalan mother lamented. Each of these statements hints at a larger metanarrative of rebuff that parents of color carry with them as baggage in encounters with schools (Fine, 1991; Fordham, 1996; Lareau & Horvat, 1999; Romo & Falbo, 1996; Winters, 1993).


Estelle Guerra, a court clerk who came to the United States from Mexico at age 13 and had some community college experience, launched into one such story in an English interview, after noting the importance of “open communication” with and “paying close attention” to her daughter, Marianna, to ensure her success in school:


I was very upset last year. . . . Marianna was unhappy with her counselor, and I tried to get ahold of the counselor a few times about changing one of her classes that she wasn’t satisfied with. And he never got back to me . . . and she would come and tell me how she felt about him not paying enough attention to what she wanted to do. That upset me very much. But I always told her, “you know, try to be a little patient.” I got her to change, finally, her class, ’cause I had to write a note to her counselor. I never got to speak to him. . . . And even after I wrote the waiver [to change the class], I went to one of the meetings, the parent Open House, I believe, and I met him then ’cause I didn’t even know him in person. And I told him. And he said, “You know, I don’t think that’s one of the classes that Marianna should be taking because she didn’t do good on it last year, or last semester.” And I said, “Well . . . she didn’t do good because she really wasn’t satisfied with the teacher, OK, but I think she can make it.” “Well, no, no, in order for her to make it, she has to do all of the requirements.” And I said, “Well, you know, I’m willing to let her try it.” And I can’t really tell you which class it was, I don’t remember. But whatever it was, he kind of made me feel that Marianna was not smart enough to take that class. And if he gave me that feeling I was sure he made her feel that way, too. So I made it that she took the class. I said, “Whatever has to be done.” “Well, if she doesn’t pass it, then it’s gonna be, you know, it’s not gonna look good on her [transcript] just ’cause you wrote the waiver.” And I said, “It doesn’t matter, just let her have it.” So she did take the class, and she passed it.


At one level, this is a story of family-school conflict and parent advocacy. But Estelle Guerra’s actions, and her narration of them in the interview, sprang from her emotional response to her child being unhappy with a counselor who was “not paying enough attention” to the child’s wishes. Not only did the counselor thereby violate one of the parent’s core beliefs about how to treat children, but in the story’s emotional climax or turning point he made both mother and child feel that the student wasn’t “smart enough” for the higher class. Estelle reacted with fierce maternal vigilance to this implied insult, holding her ground to resist school requirements and insist that the class be changed.


It is telling that Estelle did not remember which class was at issue, just as she did not know her child’s grade point average in a later interview at a time when Marianna was failing several classes. Estelle’s lack of precise information did not prevent her from taking the steps she felt were needed to protect her child’s interests and self-esteem. Her child was trying to move to college prep-level biology from a lower level biology class that did not count for college admission, but Estelle did not frame the incident as interceding to remove an obstacle in Marianna’s pathway to college. Estelle recalled this incident as an instance of defending her child against a demeaning counselor who did not show proper respect. Marianna, on the other hand, cited the same incident in a Futures class assignment as an example of parent support and of barriers in the Chicano educational pipeline.


In her insistence on respect and her portrayal of herself as attentive to her child’s emotional needs in school, Estelle displayed some features of the traditional “educación schema” of Latino immigrant parents (Reese et al., 1995; Valdés, 1996). In this cultural belief system, educación consists of both moral training at home and academic training at school, with the former a foundation for the latter and for respectful relationships. Like many parents and students who feel disengaged from schools, Estelle Guerra may have been seeking a level of individualized attention and personal relationships that are incompatible with bureaucratic school structures and dominant cultural conceptions of education (Davidson, 1996). Parents and educators need to understand more about each other’s belief systems and the constraints under which each operate if they are to better help students.


This story encapsulates the power struggles over students’ educational fates that are especially threatening—and alarmingly commonplace—for families of color. Estelle Guerra’s oppositional voice is evident in recreated dialogue that portrays the counselor as a stubborn, unfeeling bureaucrat and herself as the righteous, undaunted individual fighting the system. She frames the counselor’s message as a personal affront that must be countered. As narrator, she had the power to recast his words to belittle his preoccupation with procedure and place herself in the most flattering light as an advocate for her child. Through such recasting, parents who have been rebuffed by schools can relive humiliating moments and renegotiate their meaning. This is a significant reversal of the disempowerment they felt during the encounter itself, lending great emotional force to such stories.


Other parents at family meetings described similar experiences of bureaucratic rebuff, even in routine matters, such as buying discount lunch tickets or changing students’ class schedules. Several parents remarked on the rudeness of school staff who made them wait for appointments without apology, did not include them in discussions with their children, or reneged on promises. At an open meeting on families’ concerns with the counseling system, Black and Latino parents from Futures and other programs fixated on counselors’ failure to return phone calls as symbolic of their frustration (Auerbach, 2000). “Why should we have to suffer like this?” one mother wondered. Parents of color are extremely sensitive to these signals of lack of respect because they resonate with their experience of institutional racism and marginalization. Like the racial microaggressions experienced by students of color in schools and universities (Solorzano & Villalpando, 1988), even seemingly trivial bureaucratic rebuffs can have a cumulative effect on family-school relations and student careers.


Parents of color who are rebuffed by school staff experience what Lamont and Lareau (1988) call “moments of social exclusion,” in which perceived differences in cultural capital are used to deny access to educational opportunity. Parents who have undergone this sense of exclusion have a great need to tell their stories, not only for emotional release but also for the chance to sort out the meaning of their upsetting experience and the nature of the barriers they encountered. Through storytelling, they attempt to reconcile their personal experience with the canons or norms of the school (Bruner, 1991; D’Emidio-Caston & Brown, 1998). When they are encouraged to share these stories publicly with other parents, the results can be powerful for rallying support and collective problem solving. For example, when the mother who spoke of suffering regaled a group of 15 Spanish-speaking parents with her tale, they chimed in repeatedly with questions and suggestions, drawing from their own frustrating encounters with staff over high school scheduling problems. When a safe space is created in which school staff can listen to such stories and convey their personal concern for families, there is potential for more authentic communication and trust.

COUNTERSTORIES THAT CHALLENGE THE SYSTEM


At Futures & Families meetings, project staff and guest speakers encouraged dialogue on racism, privilege, and other topics normally silenced at school events. Parents responded to this approach with fragments of their own critical narratives in the form of questions, such as: “Why don’t students get the classes they need for college from the start?” (Black mother) “Is it true that counselors are still giving minority students bad advice?” (Guatemalan father) “What can you do when your child gets a racist teacher?” (Mexican father) “Why is it so hard for kids to get financial help for college?” (Estelle Guerra). Beneath each question lay personal stories of struggle about themselves and their children, which were pursued in individual interviews. Within each question were implicit challenges to a system that these families found bewildering, frustrating, and unjust, which some recognized affected them collectively.


Repeatedly, in response to what they learned about college pathways at family meetings, parents declared that all students should have the opportunity to go to college and that high school should prepare all students for this option. It was with this expectation in mind that aspiring immigrant parents enrolled their children in American schools generally and in this well-reputed high school in particular. These parents—especially inner-city parents who sent their children to the school under special permit or false address—assumed that Pacific High offered better academic opportunities to their children. Instead, they learned that resources were unequally distributed within the school and that participation in a so-called college-prep curriculum did not guarantee eligibility for university. The realization of the many barriers and complex steps en route to college—the unmasking of equal opportunity in education—provoked parents’ dismay and anger. The more they learned about the structural constraints of the school, such as tracking, the more betrayed they felt. These feelings were more readily expressed by Latino parents in interviews and in talks with their children than in public meetings, with the notable exception of Manuel Carillo.


A restaurant manager of indigenous origin who completed high school (preparatoria) in Mexico, Manuel Carillo expounded on this clash of expectations in a small group discussion in Spanish at the parent meeting on counseling concerns:


I want my daughter to have the best. I don’t want classes, I call them “chance classes,” that are not going to be useful. . . . Mr. Romero [a popular Latino counselor] was looking for students to not only graduate but also have the classes needed, the credits needed, to compete for university. Because if not, that’s what I don’t understand: why the difference? Why do they give the good classes that are needed for university to some and not to others? I suppose that if there’s equality, everyone should have the opportunity, even though a lot of students will have a lower grade, less degree of taking advantage, but they should all have the opportunity. That’s what I don’t understand. . . . In Latin American countries, they all study the same [have the same classes] . . . I came and I talked to the counselor and he indicated to me what Magdalena needed to compete [for university]. . . . I told him that I needed her to have all that. It doesn’t matter how we are going to do it, or how she’s going to do it, but she has to be at that level.


Manuel Carillo’s narrative is notable for its outspoken critique, as befits the only Futures parent who was politically active at the school as a member of the governance council and whose family had a history of political leadership in their village in Mexico. Though he was the only Futures parent to speak so emphatically and publicly on this issue on this and other occasions—including with researchers at a national education conference—he was articulating collective concerns about equality of opportunity. Such community spokespeople with the knowledge or skills to speak for fellow marginalized parents are critical to helping educators reach out to parents who are traditionally less visible in schools (Meyers et al., 2000).


Manuel’s story moves from structural critique of the system (“Why do they give the good classes that are needed for university to some and not to others?”) to the level of individual parent agency at a meeting with the counselor (“I told him I needed her to have all that”). He calls attention to the contradiction between the ideal of equality in American schools and lack of universal access to a college preparatory curriculum. He embeds his critique in an immigrant “dual frame of reference” (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 1993), comparing education in his homeland with education in the United States and struggling mightily to understand the mismatch. This effort to come to terms with an unfamiliar, seemingly unfair system motivated Manuel’s regular attendance at Futures & Families meetings, despite his 16-hour workdays; he said he was “always learning something new” and spoke increasingly of continuing his own education at community college.


Manuel’s story exemplifies how parent narratives may be constructed in reaction to particular institutional or majoritarian narratives of schooling. At Pacific High School, much of this discourse was progressive in tone, as in the principal’s pointed calls for the elimination of the “two-schools problem,” in which Black and Latino students had vastly different academic outcomes than their White and Asian American peers. Yet the principal was ultimately invested in official narratives, as in insisting that administrators speak at the meeting on parents’ counseling concerns; the very presence of these authorities, with their budgetary figures and bureaucratic explanations, had a silencing effect on parents’ willingness to publicly express their views and challenge the status quo (Auerbach, 2000). Clearly, Manuel realized that the school’s egalitarian rhetoric and its progress on some fronts had not touched its core structures and fundamentally traditional sorting mechanisms. In his story, he drew attention to shared concerns about the discriminatory effect of these structures while recounting his individual efforts to negotiate them for his child.


Manuel’s story simultaneously tries to make sense of the system and to protest it, or at least interject his voice into it, much as he did at other meetings in insisting on more Latino parent representation in school governance or easier student access to counselors. He was determined to use all the information he could muster on his daughter’s behalf—a response that, though outwardly conformist and individualist, had the potential to lead to outcomes that defied the odds. Manuel’s oppositional narrative recognized elements of social reproduction in schooling and unmasked the course placement practices that perpetuate it. Gradually, Manuel began using lessons learned in Futures & Families to press for political change at the school and district.


Though few Futures parents displayed Manuel’s depth of critique or willingness to contest authority, many sympathized with his sense of injustice. Manuel’s story is suggestive of the muted voices that deserve a fair hearing in schools; for this reason, I have highlighted it in the title of this paper. How many more counterstories like his might surface if schools encouraged, rather than suppressed, authentic dialogue?

DISCUSSION


The three stories in this paper are all tales of struggle in which marginalized parents attempt to make meaning of the barriers they and their students face in school. Significantly, these stories were recounted spontaneously in response to questions about how families support their children’s education and pathway to college. Like the students in D’Emidia-Caston and Brown (1998), the parents in this study used stories to try to bridge the gulf between their life experience and the norms of school culture—to meditate on their aspirations, frustrations, and betrayals in the education arena.


Alicia and Luis Garcia’s cautionary tale sets up a stark contrast between their own upbringing and their efforts as parents around the need for Latino parents to push their children to achieve. Estelle Guerra’s story of bureaucratic rebuff recounts a tense encounter that pits a fiercely protective mother against a seemingly uncaring school bureaucrat. Manuel Carillo’s counterstory challenges school structures by exposing the limits of equal educational opportunity and his efforts to work the system. Other parents in the larger study had similar types of tales in their repertoire, based on shared experience and perception. Further research is needed to determine whether cautionary tales, stories of rebuff, and counterstories are indeed common genres of personal narratives of schooling with common themes among parents of color.


What do these parent narratives reveal about agency, canonical breach, and power? Each instance of parent agency, from Alicia Garcia’s strict homework monitoring to Estelle Guerra’s waiver and Manuel Carillo’s insistence on “good classes,” counters stereotypes of uninvolved Latino parents who delegate academic matters to the school. It is instructive to peruse parent discourse for all signs of the visible and not so visible ways that they support their children’s schooling, as parents themselves do not typically draw attention to these. The very act of foregrounding parents’ stories at school, with their implications of proactive protagonists, may reinforce awareness of the role of parent agency in students’ careers.


Estelle Guerra’s story breaches the canons of bureaucratic regulation and professional authority in schools with the assertion that a parent may know best what is right for his or her child. Manuel Carillo’s story questions claims of equal educational opportunity by observing how students are actually differentially placed in classes. In both cases, parents’ oppositional voices cast doubt on the legitimacy of the status quo and present alternative, family-centered visions of schooling as more caring and more just. The canon the Garcias seek to overturn is more private and internal: family and perhaps broader cultural traditions of low academic expectations and limited parent involvement. Yet theirs was no less a struggle as they tried to forge an alternative parent identity and encountered many of the same institutional barriers.


When parents of color generate their own discourse on schooling, rather than passively receive official discourse from the school, they begin to take charge of their participation in education on their own terms. When they exchange stories with one another and with interested educators, they expand the base of knowledge and support on which power rests (Delgado-Gaitan, 1991). Parent empowerment is a long and complex process that goes beyond programmatic formulas. Nevertheless, the honoring of parents’ narratives of and in schools can be instrumental in furthering several aspects of parent empowerment and family-school relations:


● Building and strengthening social networks: Story exchange eases the isolation of working-class parents of color, such as Alicia Garcia, and prompts recognition of commonalities, laying the groundwork for school-based social networks. Parents realize they are not alone; other parents with similar life experiences have similar aspirations for their children and face similar obstacles. This recognition of kinship through shared biography can help establish the trust for enhanced social capital that ultimately benefits students (Coleman, 1988; Shirley, 1997). Parents begin to view each other as compadres in a common struggle, as sources of information and support. As their social network expands, they are exposed to new strategies and pathways for their families (Delgado-Gaitan, 1991). Protective immigrant parents, for example, may consider sending children to distant colleges once they hear the testimony of other parents they respect who have taken this step. This social network becomes even more valuable if it extends to school staff members who are willing to engage in dialogue with parents. Having easy personal access to educators has proven critical to parents trying to help their students to navigate schools (Lareau, 1989; Yonezawa, 1997).


● Negotiating conflict with the school: Like the disengaged students of color in Davidson (1996), parents are profoundly alienated by bureaucratized relationships and barriers to information at school. Sharing stories in their own community of practice gives parents tools to make sense of the rebuff and confusion they often find in encounters with school staff, such as Estelle Guerra’s clash with the counselor. The more parents hear of the struggles of fellow families of color, the more they realize that these problems go beyond individual idiosyncracies to collective experience of social structures, as articulated by Manuel Carillo. It is vital for school programs to name and problematize points of conflicts between families and schools—to put them front and center so that parents feel free to talk about them—rather than concern themselves solely with building harmony and consensus (Fine, 1991, 1993; Mehan, Villanueva, Hubbard, & Lintz, 1996). It is likewise vital to nurture dialogue on neutral ground between families and school staff, where all parties can reflect on their experience and gain at least partial understandings of others’ perspectives (Auerbach, 2000; Burbules & Rice, 1991). In this manner, a potential “third space” is created, which disrupts the official discourse and scripted behavior that normally dominates school events for parents, just as it does in classrooms for students (Gutierrez, Rymes, & Larson, 1995). At the same time, encouraging oppositional narratives, whether with parents or students, creates tensions with school staff, which programs must carefully anticipate and manage.


● Imagining new family roles and identities: Parents’ role in their children’s education is not static but a dynamic, developmental process that evolves as students grow and parents gain experience with parenting and with schools (Eccles & Harold 1993; Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler 1997). Tracking shifts in parent narratives over time can afford insights into this process. In taking time out from the stress of parenting to tell their stories of schooling, parents have a unique opportunity to examine their role and articulate their dreams for their children and themselves. For the Garcias and other Latino parents in my study who reject the parenting models of their own upbringing, storytelling can encapsulate their “quest for a template” on parenting under new conditions for family life (Gonzalez, 1996). When parents share accounts of their own transformation, especially the overcoming of obstacles, they embolden others to make changes toward more proactive, advocacy-oriented roles.

IMPLICATIONS FOR POLICY AND PRACTICE


The families of students of color are among the most important, least understood targets of educational policy today. Schneider and Ingram (1993) suggest that to make better social policy, policy makers need more accurate, sensitive maps of their policy targets. They especially need to understand the “cultural logics” of diverse family beliefs and practices related to policy issues (Fuller, Elmore, & Orfield, 1996). How do parents of color/low income see their role and the role of educators in their children’s education? How do these parents experience interactions with school staff and perceive the structures that may have a disproportionate impact on their children? What do families want, need, and expect from schools when they aspire to college for their children? One way to address such questions is to elicit previously silenced voices and share their stories to illuminate master narratives of struggle in schools.


The parent stories examined in this paper suggest several lessons for policy makers and educators. Schools should


● Learn more about students’ families, including parents’ educational histories, support strategies, funds of knowledge, and dreams for their children. This can be done through surveys, focus groups, town meetings, home visits, and other means, as part of action research, teacher training, and ongoing dialogue.


● Provide safe spaces where parents can learn, share, and reflect on stories of schooling with fellow parents, sensitive educators, and others who look like them. These can range from parent support groups and advocacy training to informal Parent Center gatherings and some form of teacher-parent conferences at the secondary level, all geared to enhance family social capital.


● Transform high school counseling departments from sites of alienation to a key communications link with the families that most need their services. Counseling systems should be restructured to focus on knowing students as individuals, guiding their progress on college pathways, and reaching out to inform and include their parents as partners in individual decision-making (Yonezawa & Oakes, 1999). Course placement policies and procedures should be transparent to students and their families.


● Anticipate and seek to understand and reduce conflict between families of color and schools. Educators must work with parent and community groups to remove the barriers to access that exacerbate such conflict and come to see parent advocacy as a necessary and healthy impetus for change.


Narrative research has a critical role to play in persuading policy makers and administrators to make reforms that will ease the struggles of families of color. A few compelling stories, framed authoritatively in context, may do more to move policy makers than voluminous statistical reports, particularly if cultural members feel they are persuasive accounts (Lincoln, 1993; Marris, 1990). Meanwhile, in schools, approaches that honor and respond to parents’ voices and that treat parents’ stories as learning resources for families and educators alike can do much to bring disparate worlds closer together and build more inclusive, dialogic learning communities.

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SUSAN AUERBACH received her doctorate in education policy from UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies’ Urban Schooling Division in 2001. Her research interests at the intersection of the social context of education and policy issues include parent involvement, college access, Latino education, secondary school reform, accountability, and public engagement in school change. She is currently a visiting assistant professor of education at Whittier College in Whittier, California, and a Senior Research Associate at the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, University of Southern California.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 7, 2002, p. 1369-1392
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10990, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 7:50:22 PM

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