Green Fire Times

OP-ED: Miguel Angel Acosta / Community Learning and Education, for Change

The first graduating class of Earth Care’s Poder Familiar program. Graduates completed a 10-week parent leadership training series called Abriendo Puertas, led by the Partnership for Community Action. Many went on to complete the Train the Trainers program and are now teaching the series to parents on Santa Fe’s south side.



“Manifest Destiny is one of the fundamental principles on which this country is based.” So sayeth the acting New Mexico secretary of Public Education. He also said that Manifest Destiny justifies more charter schools, possibly envisioning an invasion or conquest that overwhelms existing public schools. His remarks do point out something aside from ignorance, racism and insensitivity. They point to the confused nature of the education debate.


Schools do not educate children; communities do. Schools are but one institution, one factor in creating or denying opportunities for children’s life chances. Every culture has recognized the relational nature of learning and the communal basis for education. Most modern cultures still operate from that perspective, as opposed to Manifest Destiny, with the most prominent exception being the U.S. Here, we have been told that schools alone are the educators. That it is critical that schools do what we are asking of them. That if they fail us they must be replaced. That the market is a more objective arbiter in determining educational choice, and that our freedom and democracy are at stake.


These are all false statements, of course, but have been internalized by most and constantly regurgitated by media. In fact, even many “progressives” speak of school reform as if it were a real thing, and offer up simplistic, disconnected, decontextualized solutions for “fixing schools.” If we dig deeper we will see the finely crafted strategy to undermine public education across this country and others, and set the stage for privatization of schooling, again.


In 1983, A Nation At Risk was published, starting the Reagan administration’s war on public education, and flipping the narrative on education and schools. Schools and public education were simultaneously declared a failure and a risk to democracy (measured as corporate profits and competitiveness) as well as critical to the survival of said democracy (same corporate profits). Public Education was commodified and put up on the shelf for comparison. It was made solely responsible for the lack of corporate competitiveness, the reduced military and political dominance of the U.S. and the weakened scientific and technical leadership of our universities.


While the rhetoric of accountability that followed indicated a determination to invest, measure and support the re-creation of the best system in the world, the reality has been much different. Spending at the local, state and federal levels has actually gone down when you consider unfunded mandates, below-the-line resource accumulation by education departments, and the reductions that have coincided with the recessions created by neoliberalism. Furthermore, there has been a constant barrage against the teaching profession, undermining current teachers and future teacher corps as well as fomenting deep divisions between what in other countries is a natural and important partnership: parents and teachers.


The other part of this strategy is to talk about schools and education as separate from all else, from the context of children’s lives. It is also a precursor for all else. Another contradiction that very few question. The economy is in a shambles not because of greed, but because of bad schools. Companies big and small can not hire locally because of bad schools, not because their tax breaks directly affect school budgets. Poverty is the result of bad schools, not policy decisions. There is a pattern.


 There are three primary areas of focus that are suggested for real transformation. The first is a continued insistence that teachers and school leaders be well prepared. Many people would be surprised to know that teachers who go through traditional teacher education programs to get certified are more prepared now than they have ever been. There are more teachers with master’s degrees, more teachers with national certifications, more teachers pursuing continuing and further education. The question, of course, is the focus of their training and the quality of the programs themselves. In New Mexico and nationally, we need all of our teachers to be certified bilingual and special educators and to reflect the actual students and communities being served. We must also focus on how best to develop school leaders. Current models and processes are not working.


The second area of focus is community capacity building. Along with neoliberal divestment in health, education and social welfare over the last 40 years, our political economy has also undermined people’s capacity for civic engagement. All people. Racist and unjust socio-political and economic structures continue to privilege upper-income individuals and elites so their reduced civic engagement skills are not as apparent, although the election of the current president is a dead giveaway. For middle- and low-income communities, however, especially communities of color, the loss of capacity is tragic. In places like Santa Fe it is catastrophic, as our middle class has been pushed out through gentrification and an economy based on tourism and importing workers for the so called “creative economy,” which continues to command excessive influence on local economic and social development policies. The result is that young and not-so-young people and families are not as ready to engage in civic discourse and action that could be creating better outcomes for everyone. Even worker’s unions and community-based organizations are having a difficult time, traditionally entities that built the capacity of their members. Foundations and nonprofit service providers have filled the leadership void and are now speaking on behalf of client community needs as well as engaging in policy development, both problematic for a vital democracy.


What is necessary is a serious investment in developing capacity for civic engagement. Too much of what passes for community engagement in the development of policies, practices and legislation from the schoolhouse to the Roundhouse is not meaningful engagement at all, but rather one-way information sharing in the shape of meetings, forums and surveys. Foundations and local government must invest heavily in leadership development for civic action. Community-based organizations and schools can partner to build leadership capacity in youth, parents, families, workers and neighborhoods. Equity audits of public institutions, such as the city and the public schools, and all entities receiving public funds should include an analysis of their engagement policies and practices at all levels, including boards and commissions to check for accessibility, including language and representation. We have an immediate opportunity with Ranked Choice Voting, but other opportunities must be developed immediately both to build capacity and provide opportunities for practice.

Earth Care Youth Allies end-of-year celebration dinner


The third area of focus is where the first two converge, at the school-community level. A noted education researcher, Michael Fullan, notes that “successful school outcomes” are most influenced by the quality of leadership at the school and in the community. If one or the other is lacking, success will be an unlikely outcome. It is important that we understand the full meaning of his and others’ contributions to this idea. He is not speaking of a Super PTA, or some other process that brings the focus of community leaders to the school. He is describing a school community that has as its focus integrated community development where education is everyone’s responsibility and learning is not limited to the school building, where students currently spend maybe 17 percent of their lives. In this scenario city leaders and school personnel work in partnership with communities to ensure integrated development in areas such as community economic development, affordable housing, health promotion and food security, public transportation and other public investments, leisure and recreation, job creation and adult education and all the other areas of a quality life. This partnership places working families and children at the center—guarding against gentrification and sprawl, which otherwise is reinforced by the closing of schools in the urban core, and the building of new ones at the periphery at the behest of developers. Public resources are invested in multi-generational programs that are evidence-based like Bilingual Early Childhood Education and Abriendo Puertas—creating social capital and activating people’s natural sense of well-being.


Too often when education researchers look at schools that are successful despite many risk factors in their students and families, they focus their gaze almost exclusively on the school in their search for explanations. They end up giving almost all the credit to school-based or school-related factors and then are shocked when other schools fail to duplicate the success. The fact is that in most cases these communities, many of them small or rural or in urban neighborhoods, have a level of civic engagement, social capital and community leadership that helps support integrated community development on which a strong school can build successful learning. That is where our gaze needs to be.   


Miguel Angel Acosta is the co-director of Earth Care, where he directs the Poder Familiar program and mentors emerging leaders. He has more than 40 years of experience advocating for educational opportunities and community development for underserved populations.