Caesar Mickens, director of Early College Design Services at Jobs for the Future, provides an inside look at PSJA's parental engagement program.
In three impoverished communities near the Texas-Mexico border, hundreds of parents are following in their children’s footsteps each day and heading off to school. Single mothers, unemployed fathers, and recent immigrants are mastering English, studying for GED tests, and becoming certified for high-demand jobs to improve economic prospects for their families.
The free classes are an unusual, but integral, part of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (PSJA) Independent School District’s “early college for all” strategy to reach the goal of graduating all students with a head start on higher education. The 32,000-student district is one of the first in the country that aims to propel each young person to begin college and earn credits while in high school and the results have been impressive.
But PSJA leaders knew they were missing a crucial ingredient in their formula for student success: parents. Practical and emotional support from parents is vital to helping teens navigate high school and even consider college, says Olivia Benford, the parental engagement coordinator. Parents who want to help but lack English language or literacy skills face big barriers.
But these parents can also be invaluable role models, especially when taking on similar academic challenges as their children. “Parents are our students’ first teachers and if we can engage the parents, they become models for their children,” Benford says.
Superintendent Daniel King envisioned an educational track for parents running parallel to their children’s, with a robust menu of classes to improve their basic academic skills and job marketability. Nearly 99 percent of PSJA students are Hispanic, and 89 percent are classified by the state as “economically disadvantaged.” Many hundreds of parents attended a planning meeting to make their needs known.
“They told us they needed to learn how to read and write, that they needed jobs,” says Benford. “They told us they didn’t know how to read a [school] progress report, that they didn’t understand credits or what their children needed to graduate.”
Participant Rubinia Cavazos Leal and her husband, with their children. (Left to right) Ramiro Leal is in 11th Grade at Southwest Early College High School. He has almost finished two Associate's degrees (in Physics and Mathematics at South Texas College). Sofia is in 6th grade at Kennedy Middle School. Rubinia Leal is a freshman at University of Texas at Austin. She finished Southwest Early College High School and has two Associate's degrees from South Texas College (in Engineering and Arts Interdisciplinary Studies).
Overwhelming Response: More than 3,100 Parents Participated in First Year
Three parental community education centers opened in fall 2013—one in each of PSJA’s three cities. The response was overwhelming: more than 3,100 parents completed at least one class last year, and even more are expected to participate this year. Two additional centers will open in November to accommodate the demand.
Housed in former elementary schools, each center is open from 8 am to 8 pm, with up to five classes running simultaneously. The site managers serve as administrator, case manager, and problem solver, as parents come seeking help with a wide variety of issues—from transportation problems to health insurance questions to difficulties filling out food stamp applications.
PSJA has partnered with South Texas College and its faculty members teach the core academic courses—GED, ESL, and computer literacy—at a discounted rate to the district. The centers also offer certification for those seeking work as welders, auto mechanics, security guards, and nursing assistants. An entrepreneurship track, taught by community volunteers, teaches sewing, cake decorating, floral design, and jewelry making.
Some 33 other groups collaborate with the parent centers to offer their expertise in areas such as child development, job searches, and nutrition and cooking.
Success Stories: Parents Gain Skills, Find Work to Support Their Families
After just one year, lives have been transformed, Benford says. A single mother of six children, who depended on government assistance for years, earned a welding certificate, found a job as an assistant welder, and is now off government support. Another student, a migrant worker new to the community, thought she was destined to a life of fieldwork. Staff encouraged her to take courses in sewing and cake decorating and she now runs a successful home business doing both. A third mother completed the ESL class, earned a GED, became certified as a nursing assistant, and is now gainfully employed and supporting her children for the first time.
Parents do not pay for the courses, but they are required to complete 10 hours of community service, ideally at their child’s school. Last year, they volunteered more than 103,000 hours. “They beautified the school grounds, made garments for a women’s shelter, and washed police cars,” says Benford. “It reinforced the idea of responsibility.”
Rubinia Cavazos Leal, whose eldest daughter began South Texas College this year with enough credits from PSJA Southwest Early College High School to qualify as a junior, credits the parent engagement program with doing much more than improving her English. It has also enabled her to model for her children the importance of giving back: she is a computer instructor at the Napper center, where now she teaches other parents basic skills like emailing, writing letters, and navigating the Internet.
It’s a message her daughter, also named Rubinia, has received loud and clear. “I really like that she has gotten so involved with the schools,” she says. “And I’m involved too—tutoring kids and mentoring them to help them get into college.”
Special thanks to the Leal family; Olivia Benford, Rodney Garza, and Danny King of PSJA; and Vicki Ritterband for her reporting and editorial support.
Photographs courtesy Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District