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Resource and Remaking: Organizational Mediation of Parent-School Relationships


Engaging low-income parents of color in schools in ways that empower and respect rather than further marginalize remains a persistent challenge. Current studies on organizations which work with low-income parents of color in schools, which I term “parent engagement organizations” or PEOs, highlight how PEOs lend critical infrastructure and resources to activities such as disseminating information about educational practices or organizing parents for school reform. Less understood is how organizational survival, a condition specific and unique to the organization as a social actor, may influence parent engagement practices and, subsequently, how low-income parents of color are empowered to engage in schools. In this study, I move beyond technical descriptions of organizational resource brokerage in parent-school relationships to uncover how organizations, as distinct social formations, mediate parent agency in schools. Bringing insights from the sociology of organizations to bear on research that examines the possibilities of empowering low-income parents of color in schools, I used a multi-case study design to explore how the conditions of survival and sustainability shaped the ways two PEOs—one educative, the other political—fostered parent agency and positioned parents in the micro-politics of schooling.

The findings suggest that organizational mediation of parent-school relationships consists of far more activities than resource brokerage. The two focal organizations dedicated resources and care to creating spaces on school sites which were welcoming and responsive to parents. However, the types of parent agency advanced by the organizations were limited to those which could also accommodate organizational needs for survival and sustainability. In the educative PEO, the parent engagement program was funded through a sub-contract with the school district. While parent engagement staff offered information and activities which addressed parents’ desire to be useful and helpful in school life, organizational identity, roles and routines, and context construed parent engagement as a compliance task that needed to be fulfilled to maintain its sub-contractor status with the district. Prioritizing good school relations was evident in the ways parent engagement staff suppressed parents’ critiques and concerns and redirected parents toward volunteer activities in peripheral school operations. In the political PEO, parents gained the skills and knowledge to advocate for and advance their interests in a variety of arenas. However, organizing was limited to district-sanctioned spaces of engagement, as pressures from collaborations with other organizations as well as district politics challenged staff’s ability to stay focused on parents’ specific, expressed interests. Consequently, the power relations which upheld policy-making authority in the hands of district elites remained unchallenged. This study demonstrates the ways parent engagement organizations are socially productive actors which shape the everyday interactions among parents, teachers, and school and district leaders, thereby shaping the social life of schooling.

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