|SAN JUAN, May 31 - Despite being a single mom and working long hours for a modest wage cleaning houses Melena provided a loving home for her three daughters to grow up in.
Melena stressed the importance of getting a good education and all three daughters did well at school. The youngest two went on to college. One is now a housewife, one works as an administrator in a maquila plant and the youngest has just finished college with a degree in psychology.
Now her children have grown, Melena wants to get an education herself. She was unable to finish high school in Zacatecas, Mexico because she had to tend to her sick mother. So, Melena enrolled in a new course being offered by Valley Interfaith in McAllen. She wants to get her GED in order to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a nurse.
The GED course is in Spanish because Melena’s English is not as good as she would like. However, she is determined to succeed and rarely misses class. She goes to school three hours a night, four nights a week.
Melena’s dedication is replicated throughout Valley Interfaith’s classes. The adults attending the classes are hungry to learn. In just a few short months, Valley Interfaith has proven, with its classes in McAllen, just how great the demand is for GED en Español. There are dozens and dozens on the waiting list, anxious to learn new skills and gain a certificate that can help them find better work. Because of the success in McAllen, Valley Interfaith has now replicated the program in San Juan.
The next step, Valley Interfaith leaders believe, is to take it to a whole new level again. Enter Dr. Danny King, superintendent of PSJA ISD. King is recognized as one of the most innovative leaders in education in the nation and his next major project looks set to be this - devoting resources and finding partners to provide a whole range of courses to help adults who want to go back to school and learn.
On Thursday evening, King spoke to over 100 adults who are either participating in the Valley Interfaith GED program or waiting to do so. The house meeting was held at St. John the Baptist’s in San Juan. Speaking in Spanish, King praised those participating in the GED program and spoke about his vision for scaling up what Valley Interfaith has started.
“This event pretty much confirmed what I already knew - that there is no a lack of desire. Rather, there is a lack of access and resources, of getting things organized,” King told the Guardian, at the end of the evening. “Since the state does not have a strong adult education program, other than the one we use for high school non-completers, we have got to get creative and bring resources together. I am real excited because out of this (Valley Interfaith initiative) we can form a partnership with multiple partners and really do something outstanding for the community and for these adults and parents that want to better themselves.”
Asked if the GED en Español program could be scaled up to match the obvious demand, King had no doubts.
“I have no doubt at all. We will find a way to do it. It is something I have known for a while and wanted to do. We have been getting a lot of other things together in our district, getting things focused, aligned and organized. What we saw tonight was already where I wanted to head. I had already told staff that we were going to move into this arena next year. I did not know this was already going on so what we were thinking about and planning converges with this (Valley Interfaith program) perfectly,” King said.
Asked what he has in mind for adults in the PSJA area that want to go back to school, King said: “I was thinking of a whole array of services, ESL, GED in English and Spanish, community college classes, technical skills classes, and really organizing a strong effort. If we are going to make progress in this community and other communities across the Valley we cannot keep sitting around waiting for somebody else to fix this problem for us. We have got to come together and we have got to attack it ourselves. It is clear the desire is there.”
When one thinks of high schools it is usually about children and teenagers, not adults like Melena, who is now in her late 40s. King said because of the circumstances in the Valley, educators have to think and act differently. He said they have to come up with new strategies to help the community as a whole become better educated.
“We have got to look at parental and community involvement in a different way. The stronger our parents and community is, the better our school is going to be. The more our parents have hope and ways to climb themselves, then, that is going to infect their children in terms of the hope. Doors can open. It is something we just have to do. I think we have known it for a long, long, time in the business. It is just a matter of coming together and finding a way to do it,” King said.
King ended his interview with the same enthusiasm and drive he displayed in his speech: “I think we can find ways to collaborate to really start scaling up. We will find a way. We have had a lot of different players working at this for many years. I think we can find ways to combine our efforts and accelerate the progress. I think the Valley is ready.”
Cynthia Salinas helped develop the GED en Español curriculum for Valley Interfaith. Salinas said Valley Interfaith has met three times with Dr. King and the discussions have been positive throughout.
“We knew Dr. King would be responsive to what we were doing but we did not know he would be this responsive. He made it clear he had been thinking about something like this for a while. I think by pushing this we ignited his desire to start these classes,” Salinas said.
“Dr. King was thinking about doing GED and ESL and then moving on to trade and college classes. He wants to do trade classes. He wants to do college hours. But, he does not want to give us a classroom. He wants to rebuild one of the old schools and have all kinds of classes there. Really, he is laying a new foundation for change in the Valley.”
Salinas said Wednesday evening’s meeting was informative because the parents broke up into small groups and discussed the sort of classes they would like to see on offer. “The parents are requesting cosmetology, mechanics, welding, carpentry, computers; all those things. They want to earn a certificate. We even have some that are interested in going beyond that, getting an associate’s degree.”
Salinas said there are good jobs with good pay for those adults who want to come back to school and learn a craft. “We have students who are graduating from PSJA with a certificate in welding. I am not kidding you we are getting big companies, oil rigs that are getting our students. The first week they are out of high school with their certificate they are hiring them, $25 an hour and upwards. We have some working underwater. They get paid $200. There is no limit. These are kids that perhaps did not consider going to college but now they have an associate’s degree, they have a certificate and they are having a much better life than they would if they had not been offered these opportunities.”
Salinas said there is no doubt Valley Interfaith has tapped into a huge demand among the people of the Valley. “It has been a snowball. We only started the GED program in February. Every time we open a new class we end up with 200 people upset because they were not able to get in. We have these long waiting lists. If we can have a center, like Dr. King is proposing, where you can have ten classes and 30 students come up and say we want to learn something else then we can open another class. We would not be limited by space or resources. Right now we work with volunteers. If this program goes through the district we can get certified instructors who are paid by the district or the state and it can grow tremendously. The sky is the limit.”
Robert Obregon attends St. John the Baptist in San Juan. He was asked by the Rev. Jerry Frank to sit in on the Valley Interfaith meetings and report back.
“Nine months ago the parish asked me to represent them at an Interfaith meeting and it turns out they were talking about updating GED classes in Spanish in Hidalgo County. I was not aware they were not available here. I saw the need for it,” Obregon said.
“My own mother would have benefited from this. She put 11 of us through school and she was ready to take it. But she could not do it. Today I see a lot of women in the same position my mom was. They educate the kids but yet they stay behind. Somehow I knew the demand was there.”
Obregon said that when he found out the nearest GED en Español program was in Brownsville, he knew he had to help. “That is when I decided to get involved in getting it into Hidalgo County. Surprisingly, we got it going relatively easily, a few months later. What was surprising to me was the overwhelming response. For every one who is here today there are four or five that could not make it or did not know about it. Every time we have a meeting like this we get the same response, more and more people are showing up.”
Asked what he thought of Dr. King’s vision, Obregon said: “He has got the reputation for being for these kinds of projects. Hopefully, after this meeting we will get together with him and really make it work.”