With each issue, Tasbo+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to education. Here is this week’s subject:
Mario Torres leads Texas A&M University’s Educational Administration and Human Resource Development program. He and a colleague recently received a $1.5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for research on school inclusion.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tasbo+edu: What is the focus of your work?
Mario Torres: More recently I’ve ventured into organizational justice and inclusion, which came about through some work that I had been doing with one of my colleagues here, Dr. Jean Madsen. We had discussions about how our work might fit together because she was interested in the experiences of children of color in schools and climates of inclusion, and I was interested in the legal aspects, or these assumptions that children enjoy full protection of their rights in schools. We decided to seek funding through the Kellogg Foundation. The whole purpose of this process was to study not only rights, but to develop a very strategic project that would avoid preaching, but emphasize self-discovery. What it means to be inclusive in schools is different from diversity because it stresses moving beyond just meeting legal requirements.
Over the past year, our funding was extended and we were awarded the amount of $1.5 million to continue this research, so we’re very excited. We’re currently working with schools and it’s been a very interesting and challenging process. We are currently meeting extensively with principals in the school to help nurture this idea of inclusiveness.
Tasbo+edu: What does your work on this project entail?
Torres: Our approach is unique. Instead of talking at them, we see this is as kind of a reciprocal process, that we are equal partners in this school improvement process. We try to build capacity not only within their leadership but across the system, and we feel that inclusion is represented by different markers. We understand that changing ideologies within a school system is difficult. So for us, we are committed to this constructivist approach, where we want them to kind of discover the different populations they serve, or the different cultures, so that their schools can be more responsive.
Tasbo+edu: What are some of the challenges that educators face today?
Torres: In today’s world, I think it’s obvious that leaders face tremendous challenges in maintaining confidence from a public that I believe is becoming more critical. This is not a negative per se; obviously the world has greater access to information, and I think this information has become a source of great power for communities. And so I say this in light of the growing presence of school choice, because we’re seeing tremendous growth in the number of options for children and parents in communities across Texas.
One of the biggest challenges that leaders need to face is building a message that schools will meet the needs of their student population in every regard — not just academic, but cultural, social and health needs. We’re seeing this as well, this movement away from schools just simply being providers of education but now also acting as a hub for social services. I think principals need to really reflect on their identity as a leader in a changing world. Because now I think given the politics of the time, leaders have to be healers. We’re seeing now — as a result of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and some other policy shifts — that students feel more threatened. And I think leaders, future leaders especially, need to be thoughtful about how they can play a role in mitigating these effects and ensuring that students sense security within the school and that there is the environment needed for children to be successful.
Tasbo+edu: What steps should leaders take to create these positive environments?
Torres: Leaders need to be strong communicators, which is not simply relaying information through emails. Because of these changes, these different social times that we live in, there’s a duty for principals to actually engage in the community. I think that principals have to make visits to homes, they have to speak at community functions, they have to be more visible, and they have to understand — in some ways they do need to be researchers, they need to go out and talk to the public and hear their narratives, and act upon those narratives in a very strategic way. I think that’s one major skill that is required of leaders today. I think that leaders need to be politicians. I think they need to understand that we live in a world of scarce resources, and you sometimes have to fight these battles to serve the needs of your children.