“I am the son of José Antonio and Gisela Paz and the father to Rosa Lê and Joseph Anthony,” Michael De Sousa introduces himself. A former high school principal for ten years and education researcher, De Sousa serves as the Chief Program Officer at The Oakland REACH, a parent-run and parent-led group in Oakland, California that empowers families to demand the best quality education for their children.
What started as an advocacy organization, The Oakland REACH is quickly becoming a model for parent leadership and the ways in which we can reimagine home-school partnership. “We can’t keep locking kids in schools and locking parents out,” De Sousa explains. “Our school systems need to ensure that those who are furthest from opportunity are the ones with the most agency and the ones co-designing the partnership.”
Partnership is one of the four key shifts we’re exploring this July. Instead of doing “for” our communities, now is the time to build together. As educators and school leaders, we can drive change by engaging our constituents at all levels, understanding their concerns and aspirations, and working together to meet their needs. Students and adults thrive in schools in which community members, families, staff, and students create and implement solutions together.
We asked De Sousa to share his insights on parent leadership and what guides his work. Below are three roles that parents and families must play as we build more equitable schools:
When we talk about partnership, the first thing we need to think about is: who is the agent and who is being acted upon. The second thing is: who is telling the story. Both matter.
In traditional school improvement models, the district or the school is the agent. Parents are being acted upon, and the school or district owns the narrative. This approach imposes “solutions” on families, students, and staff. It also solidifies power in the hands of leaders in formal positions of authority, keeping that kind of agency out of parents’ reach. The shift we are making at The Oakland REACH is that our parents lead the change.
To build genuine partnerships, the community and families you serve must tell the story—and those furthest from opportunity must be the ones with the most agency.
We engage with families as co-educators. During the pandemic, many families told us that they wanted to learn how to teach their children to read. Too often the system only values the knowledge and expertise of educators in school building, but there are opportunities to build on the assets of our communities and the families we serve.
We started training family members—moms, dads, uncles, grandmas—in the science of reading. And now families within our communities are teaching their children how to read in homes and libraries and community centers across Oakland.
We don’t need outside organizations or experts to tell us how to do that. As co-educators, our families are co-creating the change they want to see for their children.
Our goal is to support families in developing their own advocacy and leadership skills. We run fellowships to do just that. To date, we’ve trained over 350 parents.
We also provide families with the equivalent of an education case manager who listens to their needs and connects them to resources (e.g., food, housing, immigration). This also serves to bring families closer to the education system, to positions of authority, and to their own sense of agency.
“This work is really personal to me,” De Sousa adds. “My parents didn’t speak English well. They didn’t attend any of my school events because it was too difficult to navigate. I want all families to have access to the educational opportunities our children deserve.”
His advice to leaders right now: “Hire the parents. We need to put parents and community members in positions of power within our schools.”