October 5, 2007

Latina Mothers’ New Weapon in Fight for Education

By Carolyn Ji Jong Goossen
New America Media

HAYWARD — “You know the old legend about villages that throw babies into the fire pit, and whoever survives becomes a warrior?” asks Maribel Heredia. “That’s how it is when we throw our kids into the Hayward Unified School District. Our kids are set up to fail.”

Heredia is not immediately recognizable as a rabble-rouser. She drives a black family minivan, is 42, and barely five feet tall.

But she has a sharp tongue and an impish grin that betrays her inner agitator.

Heredia is part of an adhoc group of Hayward mothers that advocates for Latino students, many of whom are recent immigrants.

Many of these mothers have been pushing their schools for more resources and support for years, but say they were routinely ignored. Now they have a new weapon of mass mobilization in their arsenal that has given them unprecedented power in the public school system.

The Williams Settlement, signed into law in September 2004, derived from a lawsuit filed on behalf of thousands of California public school students who were denied the basic necessities required for educational opportunity.

A recent report by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and Public Advocates finds that the settlement has improved California students’ access to sufficient textbooks, clean and safe schools, and qualified teachers. However, there is another outcome of the case: it has empowered parents, especially Latina mothers, to take on problems at their children’s schools.

“Williams is a significant stepping stone—it plants a stake in the ground that says, you can’t ignore these kids,” says John Affeldt, attorney with Public Advocates, the co-counsel for the lawsuit.

The Williams Settlement holds schools accountable for delivering these fundamental elements, and provided nearly $1 billion to support the changes. The settlement also includes a thorough complaint procedure that parents can use when the conditions in schools impede their children’s access to a positive learning environment.

Of all the groups in California (including categories such as “low-income,” “Latino” and “African American”), it’s English language learners who are most drastically affected by poor school conditions. Eighty-five percent of English learners are Spanish speakers, largely from low-income communities. Little by little, Spanish-speaking parents—mothers in particular—are starting to use the Williams Settlement as an effective tool in their efforts to get high quality education for their children.

The group of mothers in Hayward initially came together to fight the school closures that were taking place in the district last year. Then they found out about the Williams Settlement after reading announcements about it at their kids’ schools.

“Before we got involved, (the district) only had one complaint,” says Araceli Orozco, one of the Hayward mothers. “We put together 45 more complaints,” she says, ranging from unqualified teachers to unheated classrooms and unsanitary bathrooms. Orozco, Heredia, and two other Mexican-American mothers collected complaints from concerned parents across the district. Armed with cell phones and notepads, they monitored the conditions in local schools and taught other parents to do the same.

Williams allows parents to submit written applications in Spanish, and requires the district to respond in the same language. It also enables undocumented parents to take part by allowing other mothers to submit applications on their behalf.

“I don’t know anything that’s like the Williams process, that forces a written response in 30 days,” says Heredia. “It’s a great starting point because once the parents sees, ‘Oh, they responded to me in 30 days!’ it has a domino effect. It gives parents a feeling of power, and they start investigating other aspects of the educational system and what they see is not right.”

Mothers in isolated communities such as the Central Valley are also using Williams as a legal tool to help address an issue they’ve been dealing with for years: contaminated water in school water fountains.

Elvira Godínez, 38, has three kids in public schools in Huron, a community just southwest of Fresno. Frustrated by the lack of attention her son was receiving from his teacher, she got together with other Spanish-speaking parents and met with the principal. “He told me that (our kids) were at a low level because we (parents) didn’t have an education. So what did we expect? I told him that I knew I wasn’t very educated, but I wanted better for my son, and I wanted him to have better learning conditions.”

This treatment by the principal motivated Godínez to get organized. That’s when she found out about Williams, and the role it could potentially play in addressing the health issues at her children’s school—especially the yellow water that was coming out of the school water fountains, often with chunks floating in it.

The community expressed concerns to the school site, principal, and teachers. Many of the teachers would tell their students not to drink the water. But administrators refused to acknowledge the problem.

The parents didn’t think they had any recourse until they found out about Williams. They began to do site inspections at the school and collect water samples. Public Advocates (the public interest law firm that was co-counsel for the Williams lawsuit) was able to gather scientific evidence showing that, indeed, the water was contaminated with high levels of lead and a carcinogen called TTHM.

The district submitted an application through the Emergency Repair Program—one of the Williams Settlement outcomes—to repair the pipes at the school site.

For Godínez and the other parents, this is a huge win. The Williams process not only made the school accountable to them; it also helped the parents build the political power they needed to make the school responsive to their concerns.

Godínez’s relationship with her school’s principal has evolved since their first conversation. “He knows who I am now, and he treats me with respect. And I’m not afraid of him anymore either.”

But Williams is not a silver bullet. “Williams set a floor, and said you just can’t go below ‘conditions that shock the conscience,’ but it doesn’t deal with many of the underlying conditions in these communities,” says professor Patricia Gándara, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

Ultimately Williams won’t equalize educational opportunities, but it is a first step.

In Hayward, at a recent parents’ meeting, Laura Arteaga, a mother of four, pulls out a document from her purse. It’s her son’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) test results: He received below basic in English, and basic in math. She is visibly worried, and also frustrated: it’s been a week since school started, and her son is still with a substitute teacher. Apparently, the regular teacher has not yet returned from summer vacation.

Heredia urges her to file a Williams report. “Don’t talk to the sub,” she says firmly. “File a Williams!”

For more information about the Williams Settlement and the parent complaint process, please call Public Advocates at 415-431-7430.

Return to the Frontpage