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March 15, 2012
Book Review: A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform
Justina Wang is a graduate research assistant at Harvard Family Research Project and is current studying education policy and management in the masters program at Harvard Graduate School of Education.
A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform1 offers a glimpse into six communities where families, youth, and local organizers have reshaped the educational landscape in their districts. Primary authors Mark R. Warren and Karen L. Mapp, along with a team of 15 students from Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Community Organizing and School Reform Project, argue that families and community members play crucial roles in school reform. Implicit in the book is a message that decision-makers in low-income districts may default to the status quo unless impassioned families lead the charge for their children’s education. Though A Match on Dry Grass is centered on a framework of community organizing, the book is not a how-to guide. It is instead comprised of a set of narratives from six communities across the country that built reform efforts from the ground up.
While many of the case studies involve major campaigns to build schools or restructure leadership, the authors frame community organizing not as a strategy for advancing a cause but as a means of building capacity and leadership to sustain transformational changes. A Match on Dry Grass paints family engagement similarly—not only in terms of take-home brochures and field trip volunteering, but also as a means for parents to direct their children’s education and partner with teachers in the day-to-day work of schools. The selected communities in San Jose, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, New York City, and the Mississippi Delta have not only led the cry for equitable education but have actively contributed both time and money to reform efforts.
At times, the stories presented from the national study illustrate a seemingly smooth collaboration between community groups and schools. In Chicago’s Logan Square, for example, the local neighborhood association worked with an elementary school to begin a Parent Mentor program that brought in parents as classroom assistants, a Literacy Ambassadors program that sent teachers to learn about students’ home lives, and a school-based Community Learning Center that offered adult GED courses alongside childcare.
Often, however, collaborative efforts were mired in complex politics that pitted community members and parents against school district administrators or decision makers. For example, when a White principal in Denver forced Spanish-speaking students to sit on the cafeteria floor to eat lunch, Latino parents and youth began a four-year campaign to restructure the low-performing school to ensure educational opportunities for students of all backgrounds. The campaign faced strong opposition from some teachers, and students feared retribution at times. But ultimately, the work of the Padres y Jovenes United community group not only improved conditions at the school, but also empowered the youth and community members to work for broader systemic reform in the district and state.
Similar tensions are illustrated in the Mississippi Delta case, where community leaders fought against the establishment of a new school in a mostly-White affluent neighborhood: Some parents worried that the new school would divert funds from needed school repairs in their mostly-Black community. As an indication of the fierce racial dynamics at play, members of the community group reported receiving verbal attacks and had to rely on sheriff escorts when leaving particularly heated meetings. Parent and community groups organized to negotiate with the school board and state department of education, and won an agreement to build the new school closer to the mostly-Black neighborhood so that students in that neighborhood could also benefit from the new school building. Parents saw the experience as a “historic victory” that symbolized their newfound power as a community.
|A Match on Dry Grass is ultimately a testament to the interdependence of schools and communities. Behind the stories and the challenges, the theme underlying all of the case studies in this book is the potential of community organizing to bridge deep divides.|
These power dynamics are central to the story of community organizing offered by the authors. A Match on Dry Grass is about timid parents empowered to become leaders, youth who stand up in a room full of adults to fight for their own education, and neglected communities that find strength in their collective voice. But while much of the research reveals the tensions that have limited the power of low-income families, this book is ultimately a testament to the interdependence of schools and communities. Behind the stories and the challenges, the theme underlying all of the case studies in this book is the potential of community organizing to bridge deep divides.
The authors also demonstrate that community organizing can reach beyond the classroom to shape the wide range of influences on learning, particularly for younger children. For example, the book highlights a California community facing an unusually high asthma rate among young students—by working together with school officials, the community group was able to identify the local environmental factors likely contributing to the asthma rate, and make an effort to mitigate them.
Overall, this is a compelling book that touches many of the central issues facing struggling school systems and communities. For community and school leaders in particular, the case studies will offer candid insight into the challenges and strategies involved in working collectively toward change. The authors stop short of a call to action, but demonstrate clearly the role that families and students can play in shaping an equitable education system. In the era of reform, this is the hope that underlies A Match on Dry Grass: that the future of education does not reside exclusively in the hands of policymakers and superintendents, but is well within the reach of neighbors, families, and students.
1. Warren, M. R., Mapp, K. L., & the Community Organzing and School Reform Project. (2011). A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform. New York: Oxford University Press.
This resource is part of the March 2012 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archive of past issues, please visit www.hfrp.org/FINENewsletter.