The above Zoom conversation features Thomas Ray Garcia, co-founder of the College Scholarship Leadership Access Program and Rio Grande Guardian editor Steve Taylor.

ALAMO, Texas – A nonprofit that was set up to help high school students prepare for college has, during the coronavirus pandemic, shifted its focus to assist families that lack internet connectivity.

TheCollege Scholarship Leadership Access Program(CSLAP) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit set up by former PSJA North and Princeton University student Thomas Ray Garcia.

Normally the group would be hosting college access workshops at local high schools and providing near-peer mentorship for graduating students.

However, thanks to a unique partnership with the Intercultural Development Research Association and Arise Adelante, CSLAP is now offering parents bilingual assistance with online instructional tools like Google Classroom and software like Zoom.

Thomas Ray Garcia

“Our mentors are providing technical support to families who simply want their children to complete their assignments and continue their education uninterrupted,” said CSLAP founder Thomas Ray Garcia.

Garcia participated In an in-depth Zoom conversation with the Rio Grande Guardian about CSLAP, its mission statement and its work in the Valley’s colonias. He pointed out that the group began as a summer program at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD in 2015.

“We (CSLAP) have come a long way,” Garcia said. “Technically we have been around since 2013. Every summer I would return home from college for a series of workshops, events, activities around the topic of college access and providing PSJA a mentorship avenue.”

Garcia pointed out that when he was a senior at PSJA North, nothing like CSLAP existed.

“I was a first generation, low-income student. So, my goal was to start building a network every single year. Students who wanted to help and when they got in college were willing to come back to the Valley and give back to students who were in their shoes.”

In the 2016-17 school year Garcia became a teacher at PSJA ISD, right after graduating college. This gave him the the opportunity to expand CSLAP into an academic year course for 9th, 10th, and 11th graders, infusing CSLAP activities with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills program.

Confident that PSJA was capable of running its own mentorship program, CSLAP branched out, setting itself up as a nonprofit in June 2019 in order to work with other school districts and education groups.

“We really benefitted by having our operations in place already. We did not have to worry about the legal and financial and operating programing. We were ready to go so for us the issue was just getting independence and then becoming self sustaining to where we can contract and help other school districts and create new ways of mentoring,” Garcia explained.

He said the partnership with Arise Adelante and IDRA is a great example of this.

“We are in the middle of a global pandemic. There is a clear need in the community for help. We asked ourselves, what can we do to partner with people on the outside in order to help students and parents right away.”

CSLAP and Arise Adelante

Offering colonia and low-income parents bilingual assistance with online instructional tools like Google Classroom and software like Zoom has been an eye-opener for Garcia and his CSLAP team.

“We found out that each family has their own unique obstacle, mainly because of distance learning. As a former teacher I have always been a fan of innovation and making the classrooms a place where learning can be fun and creative. Technology affords a lot of that to happen. The unfortunate reality, though, is not only is there a digital divide, there is also the problem of technical literacy.”

Garcia said CSLAP soon found out that digital tools that many people would take for granted are alien to those without internet access. Tools such as Google Docs and Google Drive and Google Classroom.

CSLAP has also learned that some apps teachers encourage students to download are new even to the nonprofit.

“An esoteric app that the student has to download to upload videos onto a cloud and it is a very technical and esoteric pathway. From a teacher’s perspective it is great, innovative, learning. But, if the student cannot access it and the parent cannot understand it, it just closes that bridge.”

Garcia said CSLAP is trying to make sure it understands where teachers are coming from.

“I think this is a reciprocal relationship in many ways, where we are not just giving the services and the mentorship, but when Arise Adelante comes forward with families, each family is a unique advocate for the circumstance they are going through,” Garcia said.

“The districts and the local community at large know that the digital divide is real but having theses families as the face of that I think puts a sense of urgency to it. It is not just that they do not understand Google Classroom, it is that they cannot use it consistently. They can use it on a cell phone but it is not the same learning experience and there are unique obstacles in the way, as compared to students who have a laptop and a consistent internet connection.”

Garcia said the wifi hotspots that school districts and municipalities are providing are helpful but not the real answer.

“There are some families who may have to drive out to a hotspot in McAllen, parking outside of a park in order to get access to internet and that just hinders the entire academic experience for some students,” Garcia said.

“So, we see this divide happen and we can see learning isn’t equal under the current system. So, we do our best to turn mentees into mentors. One example is the Arise leaders. Now that the student and parent knows how to use a certain software app they can then help their classmates to make sure everyone in the classroom is surviving the semester and thriving.”

Garcia was asked for a digital divide example or “horror story” that he and his colleagues at CSLAP have learned about during the coronavirus pandemic. He was ready.

“One story that resonates with me is a family that applied to our emergency aid fund in order to get consistent access to internet because their school district, Vanguard Academy was very generous in offering students not only from the district but throughout the community at large to park in the parking lots and access the internet with a security guard nearby. It was a safe and secure area and it was a strong internet connection. It was at a school,” Garcia said.

“The issue was this student had to move to Roma with an extended family member. So, even the great opportunity like free internet in the parking lot was out of their reach. The student’s family had to make that daily trek between Roma and Pharr, which presented unique issues itself when the vehicle itself is not working well. When there is an older family member at the wheel and there is a sense of urgency, that we need to get there at a certain time period in order to get a parking spot and to do this efficiently and effectively.”

Garcia said the student’s family was getting incredibly stressed and were playing more money than they could afford in gas expenses.

“We helped them with money for Chromebook and it turned out the student had T-Mobile and they were doing a 20-gigabyte free hotspot wifi for two months. So that student was able to get access to internet for that time period, until they saved enough money to get consistent wifi from their cable provider.”

Garcia said it is inevitable that food and shelter are at the top of the list of requirements for the disadvantaged during the coronavirus pandemic. However, he made the case that internet access ranks highly also.

“It turns out it (internet access) is (important) because in order to apply for this aid, in order to get access to these classrooms, to get information about COVID-19, you need a consistent internet connection,” Garcia said.

“Those that don’t are at a disadvantage in many different ways. When it comes to education, we want to make sure everyone has equal access to a quality education, no matter the limitations of distance learning.”

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