ALAMO, RGV – Alamo Chamber of Commerce needs to get ready for the visit of many VIPs.

That is the advice of Rick Noriega, national president of AVANCE, a non-profit that has been providing education and support to hard-to-reach families since 1973. In Spanish, Avance means advance.

“I was in Michigan yesterday with the Kellogg Foundation telling them about the wonderful community project happening at Bowie Elementary School,” Noriega told the Guardian. “We hope to be able to bring many visitors to see the great community effort that is occurring at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district.”

Noriega spoke at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Alamo Parent and Community Education Center, which has been developed by PSJA ISD in association with numerous non-profit community groups and governmental agencies. It is housed at the old James Bowie Elementary School in Alamo.

“For our friends at the Alamo Chamber of Commerce, get ready. We are going to bring visitors to witness the magic that is occurring in this particular facility. I want to salute all of you for your wonderful commitment to the children and the families of this community because you are going to change the trajectory and what is occurring throughout this region,” Noriega said in his speech.

In his speech, Noriega quoted Frederick Douglass, the famous African American social reformer, orator, and writer. “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” Noriega said, explaining that AVANCE will be providing parenting classes at the Alamo center. He said improving parenting skills helps parents and children alike. He said it is far less expensive than remedial education and dropout prevention.

PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King and AVANCE President Rick Noriega are pictured at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Alamo Parent and Community Education Center.
PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King and AVANCE President Rick Noriega are pictured at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Alamo Parent and Community Education Center.

“The parent is the first teacher and the home is the first classroom. Lo que aprendes en la cuna, se queda para siempre,” Noriega said. “The scientific fact is that over 60 percent of the cognitive brain development occurs in the first 36 months. So, by the time we are looking at 3rd grade reading tests (the die is cast).” Noriega said that when he served in the Texas Legislature he learned that the Texas prison system looks at 3rd grade reading statistics to forecast how many prison beds will be needed in the future. “The majority of those children they were forecasting beds for were often times children and students with vowel at the end of their last name,” Noriega said.

Noriega cited a recent study by the Intercultural Development Research Association which showed that on average AVANCE graduate parents go on to earn a higher income, own their own home and achieve greater educational attainment, no matter what their socio-economic background.

“This particular initiative will be looked at as a light at the top of the hill, as a beacon,” Noriega said. “Already, as I travel from the east coast to the west coast we talk about PSJA and the magnificent work that is occurring here.”

In an interview with the Guardian after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Noriega said that “downstream” elementary and high schools will the benefactors of AVANCE parents doing better and the children of AVANCE parents being school-ready and prepared to reach their full potential.

“We want PSJA to be the school district of the country and internationally. We want to demonstrate that through this community collaborative, with a two generation approach and intervention, that we can build a feeder pattern into the schools so the children are ready and the school district can be built up.”

Asked about his remark that the Texas prison system bases its growth projections on 3rd grade reading performances, Oliveira said: “We are kicking kids to the curb by the time they are eight and nine years old. We need to make an early intervention.”

Dr. Daniel King, superintendent of PSJA ISD, also spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. King said PSJA is replacing a number of old school campuses with new ones. He said that rather than allow these buildings to become abandoned and run-down PSJA wants to make them available for the community.

“We focus a lot on the education of our young people but we also need to focus on our current adults and their needs. Every week we have about 2,000 parents (taking classes). That is probably one of the most significant initiatives for a district of this size in the nation,” King said.

King said PSJA has not really advertised its adult community learning centers yet and already there is a waiting list of about 1,000 parents. He predicted that by next year PSJA would be serving about 4,000 parents a week.

“We have about 1,200 in ESL (English as a Second Language) and GED classes and our parents want to better their lives and their family lives. What better help can a parent give their own child than by being a role model themselves and by having an opportunity to improve their life to educate themselves?” King asked. He proudly announced that one mother had trained as a welder at classes run by PSJA and is now working in that trade at the Port of Brownsville.

King thanked the volunteers helping with the classes, including many Winter Texans. He also thanked PSJA’s partners in the adult learning project, such as South Texas College, La Unión del Pueblo Entero, Valley Interfaith, AVANCE, and the City of Alamo. He said these partners help share the operating costs. He also said the new adult learning centers are already being used for healthcare sign ups and other services offered by the government. “We have 30 agencies that want to come in to the center. This is a tremendous day.”