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Parents sign up for classes at PSJA ISD's new parental community engagement center in Lopezville.

SAN JUAN, RGV – When PSJA ISD officials conducted a survey to find out why more parents do not get involved in activities related to their child’s education one of the big reasons cited was an inability to read or write English.

Another reason given was the parents did not understand the terminology used about their child’s progress, terms such as ‘credits.’ Another was that the parents did not have the transportation to get to the school.

In response to this survey, PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King and his leadership team developed Parent Community Engagement Centers, which allow parents to take popular classes, such as English as a Second Language (ESL) and General Educational Development (GED).  The courses are free but parents are required to do some community service, preferably where their child goes to school. This way the parents become more engaged in their child’s education.

The Parent Community Engagement Centers have become very popular. Six have been established so far, one each in Pharr, San Juan, north San Juan, and Alamo and two in Las Milpas. A seventh is due to open soon in Lopezville.

Olivia Benford, PSJA’s parental engagement director.
Olivia Benford, PSJA’s parental engagement director.

PSJA’s parental engagement director Olivia Benford gave the Rio Grande Guardian an interview about the Parent Community Engagement Centers.

“Dr. King had this vision, about three years ago. He was trying to figure out, how we can involve the parents in their child’s education. How can we bring them into the schools? We had these parents’ meetings and so few parents would attend. It is not just us, it is all across the country,” Benford said.

“It seems like in the elementary schools there is a lot of involvement by parents. In the middle school it wanes and in the high schools it completely drops.”

So, Benford and her team did a survey, asking parents why they were not attending parents’ meetings.

“We restructured the parental engagement program. We did a survey and we had a town hall meeting. Hundreds of people attend. One of the main reasons was, ‘I do not know how to read or write in English. So, when we go to the school we do not know what they are telling us’.”

Benford said although teachers and staff might explain things in Spanish they were giving handouts in English. “The parents said, ‘we need to learn how to read and write in English.’ Another reason given was, ‘I go to my child’s school but I do not know what my child’s credits are. I do not know what the requirements for graduation are. They tell us to put our children to bed early and give them a good breakfast in readiness for some test but we don’t know what it is about. How does it involve me and my child?’”

The third major reason for parents not attending parents’ meetings, Benford said, was transportation.

“The parents said they would have to call a taxi. They said sometimes they do not have money for the taxi or money for gas. ‘I have to hire my compadre or comadre but I have to pay them for the gas. They are as badly off as I am and I do not have a vehicle.’ Explanations like that.”

Armed with this information from the survey, King and Benford set about developing a plan to reduce these impediments. “I said, if we can lower their barriers we might get them in. Dr. King said, ‘do what you have to do. Try to get 500 parents in, get them involved in their child’s schooling’. So, we started offering literacy classes, English, ESL and GED classes for the adults. We also said we are going to have monthly meetings with the parents and we are going to teach them what is a credit, what are the graduation requirements, what are the state mandates, and how are they relate to their child.”

The next important step, Benford said, was to hold these adult education classes in areas that were accessible for parents. “Dr. King said, we have all these closed up schools. Open centers in the old schools, in the neighborhoods, so they are within walking distance for parents.”

As a result of these initiatives, the attitude of parents started to change, Benford explained. “Before, it was, ‘come to a parents meeting because we are going to talk to you about this, this, and that. We are going to cover what you need to know. Well, parents are not going to come to a place where you are going to tell them what they are going to do. But if you offer them what their needs are, or a way to solve their issues, then they will come.”

Benford said PSJA wanted to offer the classes for free but they also wanted the parents to take some form of responsibility. “We said, we are going to offer you these classes and we are going to offer them for free, however, we are going to ask you to donate ten hours of community service per semester back to the school. And, that we would prefer you do it at your child’s school. The parents said, ‘that’s doable, we can do that.’ The feedback was great. The parents tell, me, ‘I have done the ten hours, can I stay longer and help?’”

So, did Benford and her parental engagement team reach King’s goal of bringing in 500 parents? “We did not hit the 500 mark. We hit 2,500 that first year, 2013-14. Dr. King said, I knew you could do it.”

Benford said the amount of community service put in by the parents was astounding. “The first year we got 103,000 hours of community service. Of those 103,000 hours, 97,000 hours were donated to their children’s school. It was great. We had got them involved.”

Benford said she told her staff that they had to gain the trust of the parents. “Our parents have a lot of gifts. They have something within them. But, you have to wean it out of them, polish it up and get them to realize they have that gift. I told my staff, ‘bring out their strengths; give them that positive attitude, that self-esteem that they are missing. Reach them through their heart. They know when you are being honest.’ Everyone wants their child to succeed. It was hard to bring them in but once they were here they trusted us.”

PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King.
PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King.

Once the parents were engaged at the school, doing their community service, PSJA staff would hear a common refrain: we need jobs to support our families. We need courses to help us get jobs.

“So, we started an entrepreneurship program. We taught them a skill and helped them make it into a business,” Benford said. “A lot of them do not have documentation but if you have your own business it is not so hard. We offered welding, security guard certification, sewing classes, knitting, pastry making, cake decorating, flower arrangement, toy making. We got volunteers. We had little flea markets, a market day. They put up tables of the jewelry they had made. Oh my God, you would be shocked at the jewelry these people make. We taught them how to make business cards. They loved it. One parent has started a business out of her home making and selling wedding dresses. Another one who has her own pastry shop.”

In the second year of the Parent Community Engagement Centers, 3,600 parents signed up for classes. This year, the third year of operation, the goal is 5,000 parents.

Benford said she is really proud to be opening a Parent Community Engagement Center in Lopezville. The center came about through a partnership with the Diocese of Brownsville, which is offering its church facility there. “The Church is providing the building and the electricity and we are providing the teachers and the equipment. It is great because Lopezville was always seen as high risk, just like Las Milpas. But, we have identified a desire there for adult education. That is all we need. Dr. King and I are extremely excited that we are finally moving into Lopezville. Thanks to the Church, we can offer our classes there.”

Benford said the Parent Community Engagement Centers would not be a success without the help of PSJA’s numerous partners. She provided a list of those partners. They are: the cities of Pharr, San Juan and Alamo, Costco, Sam’s Club, the federal government through the Affordable Care Act, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, Region One Education Service Center, Heart2Heart Counseling Services, Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department, Pharr Theater Group, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, South Texas Nursing Academy, South Texas Community College, Texas Taxpayers Assistance Project, the Good Samaritan Program, Hidalgo County Crime Victims/Family Violence, United Blood Services, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Workforce Solutions, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Kids Zone Children’s Rehab, Justice of the Peace Booby Contreras, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Molina Healthcare, MHP Salud Health Services, Nuestra Clinica Del Valle, Rio Grande Valley Council on Alcohol & Substance Abuse, AVANCE, Project ARISE, La Unión del Pueblo Entero, Proyecto Azteca, PASOS, Intercultural Development Research Association Research & Evaluation, UNIDAD Coalition, Project VIDA, LDS Charities, and the U.S. Department of Education.

Benford concluded her interview with an example of the way PSJA’s Parent Community Engagement Centers empower local residents. She said she spoke with a grandmother in her late 60s who could not read or write and who had dropped out of school as a child in the third grade. She said the grandmother was reluctant to go back to school, saying she could not even spell her name. But, she did so. “Now, she proudly spells her name for me. She wears nice clothes when she comes to our center. It brings me to tears. I tell my staff, you have a very important job, you are helping the community improve their quality of life.”