|SAN JUAN, July 6 - Economic growth in the Rio Grande Valley will explode once the talents of its residents are maximized and one way to do this is through the development and nurturing of parent and community engagement centers.
This is the view of PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King. He and his staff are working around the clock to open three such centers, two by the time the new school year starts in September. One will be in Pharr, one in San Juan, and one in Alamo.
“These parent and community engagement centers can literally transform the Rio Grande Valley,” King boldly predicted, in an exclusive interview with the Guardian.
Just before his interview with the Guardian, King had been reading about a study which showed that in Hispanic communities, the first generation of immigrants typically has a low education level, with 40 percent not completing high school. With succeeding generations, the education standards rise, the study showed. The study was not conducted in the Valley. King said in the Valley, the situation is worse because communities are continually being renewed with a new wave of immigrants, many of whom cannot speak English. King believes parent and community engagement centers can help end this cycle of low educational attainment.
“In our communities we are always being renewed with more immigrants. We do not have a comprehensive strategy for that. What happens is we are waiting a generation or two for delayed impact, for the children or the grandchildren of immigrants to get the education. That tends to hold the entire community back in terms of economic development and educational levels,” King said.
“It is very costly to always be waiting for the next generation to be educated. If we can intervene with the current adult population we can not only accelerate the education level of their children but also the adult population. If we intervene at both ends at the same time, this would be a case where one plus one does not equal two. It is more geometric. If we are educating the adult population, with the children, then positive things are going to happen faster.”
So what are parent and community engagement centers? They are centers where adults can come back to school or college to get their GED, to learn English, to learn computer skills, to learn what, in this case, PSJA ISD has to officer, to learn how they can improve their parenting skills, to learn how to combat drugs, to learn how to combat gangs, to learn how to better support their child’s education in school. While PSJA may be the facilitator and the coordinator, King sees non-profit groups, interfaith groups, colleges, workforce development boards and even economic development corporations making use of the centers to teach and train the adult population. His plan is to have a cluster of classrooms remodeled to become engagement centers for the adult community.
“By law at least one percent of our federal Title 1 funds have to be spent on parental involvement. Many school districts do parental involvement. What we are looking at doing is going deeper and broader and more intentional and finding ways to leverage,” King said.
“The key is coordinating and organizing so the resources are combined intelligently to get more bang for the buck. We can get more bang for the buck if we combine. Instead of working on our own little island, not even being aware of what somebody else is doing, or what somebody else has the potential to do, we start to work together. That is the sort of thing we are talking about.”
King said he foresees parent and community engagement centers providing onsite dual enrollment opportunities. “South Texas College would come to the parents, instead of them going to South Texas College,” he said. The potential of empowering the Valley’s adult population is immense, he believes.
“Today, I see many parents that a lack of a sense of advocacy. They do not feel like they can influence the education of their child. They feel powerless, as though that education is something separate and apart from them. The more the parent becomes empowered, the more you have a better parent and a better child. The student has a better future. The parent actually becomes more employable. The whole family goes up. You scale this across the community and you are talking about community transformation.”
King said that although he has been developing plans to start parent and community engagement centers for some time, he received validation for the project when he spoke at a recent Valley Interfaith-sponsored town hall meeting, which was held at St. John the Baptist parish hall in San Juan. Over 100 adults were there. Many of them were students, taking GED en Español at Valley Interfaith-organized day and evening classes in McAllen and San Juan.
“I was really excited to see the turnout at the Valley Interfaith event. It confirmed everything. What I saw there was enthusiasm and excitement. I believe the potential is there for us to build on that enthusiasm, that excitement. It is something that can be created not just at PSJA but across the Valley. It could really explode, if we could just harness that excitement,” King said.
“I do not know how many people were in that room, it looked like over 100. If you replicate that across the Valley and harness the energy that was in that room, the enthusiasm; the mindsets and multiply it up and down the Valley and then have something organized to leverage that, imagine how different the Valley would be. That is what I am talking about, community transformation.”
King said he is confident the development of the parent and community engagement centers will abolish the myth that many adults in the Valley, and by extension their children, have no ambition and do not care about bettering themselves. He said while there are some with such an attitude it is just a tiny minority.
“There is a myth out there that these adults do not care, that they just want to live off welfare. There may be minimal cases like that but that is really not the issue. There is a lack of access, there is a lack of resources, there is a lack of understanding how to access. You fail so many times you give up,” King said.
By way of an example about people caring about their future, King pointed to the success of PSJA’s College, Career and Technology Academy, which puts dropout students back on track to such an extent that not only do they go after a high school certificate but also a college degree.
“When I started at PSJA the dropout rate was really high. We identified 237 seniors that had not graduated. We asked them to come back to school and 223 did. They said, we do care, if there is quality and purpose and focus,” King said.
King added that he was struck by something the Ford Foundation said when it visited the Valley five or six years ago.
“The Ford Foundation was here a few years ago looking at economic development and they were a little bit critical. They thought too much attention was paid to attracting businesses and that there was not enough focus on supporting our own community, of growing our own businesses. Ford did not see anything at the time to get behind. I think they felt like the strategies they saw we were doing were the tired old strategies that do not get to the route of the problem. But, today, I think there is potential,” King said.
King said things are different today, not just because of PSJA’s plans for parent and community engagement centers but also because of a new initiative PSJA is working on with school districts and higher education institutions up and down the Valley. Working with Educate Texas and with funding from the Greater Texas Foundation a working group is looking at ways to build on the successes each member of education institution is having.
“There is potential interest from significant foundations if we are able to develop some scaled up ideas that are region-wide. There is some potential to get some significant funding around that. Our main focus within that group is the transition from middle school through higher education, and opening up that pipeline in order to have a dramatic impact on the number of students that enter and complete higher education and who get some type of certification, such as an associate’s degree or a master’s degree, and then connecting from that into the economic development aspect. Right now, that is our primary focus,” King said.