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Parents in Schools: Keys to Educational Advancement

How Parents Step Ahead (PSA) Created a New Model for Parental Engagement
By Frank Gómez

Our nation´s educational challenges are so great and seemingly insurmountable that we read daily about new programs and approaches. Foundations, big and small, corporations, governments at all levels and other organizations expend resources and energy to address vexing issues in the expectation that they will reap dividends, improving outcomes and increasing educational opportunity.

Thank you Nissan, Month of the Family Support.

Thank you Nissan, Month of the Family Support.

Quite under the radar, beyond the headline-grabbing grants and initiatives, is a Dallas-based organization that has developed and applied a proven model of parental engagement, Parents Step Ahead (PSA). Celebrating their 10th anniversary next year, the nonprofit deserves headlines, too!
Parents Step Ahead (PSA) now conducts parental engagement programs in schools in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area, in San Antonio and – just now getting underway – in Trenton, NJ. Its beginnings nine years ago, its growth and successes merit our attention.

The Inspiration

Parents Step Ahead Gala, 2012.

Parents Step Ahead Gala, 2012.

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of El Hispano News, co-publisher Lupita Colmenero asked her team what the newspaper should do to celebrate. Ideas flowed: a party, a reception, some glittery activity that would make all feel good. On pondering the suggestions, however, she had another idea. “We report on the many problems in our community. Should we not do something to remediate them?” she asked. The response was an enthusiastic “yes.”

Colmenero, a trained social worker and immigrant from Mexico, sensed that parents, particularly Latinos, were not sufficiently engaged in their children’s education, schools and individual development. Conversations with experts confirmed that view. Next, she checked with friends around the country she had come to know as the immediate past president – and a great one – of the National Association of Hispanic Publications (NAHP).

“Should we do this?” she asked. “And will you help me?” I was one of those she contacted. Like others who knew of Colmenero’s leadership, commitment and passion, I had to say yes. So, Colmenero formed a board, had by-laws written and PSA was incorporated as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit in 2005.

The Model

Parents Step Ahead Program.

Parents Step Ahead Program.

Believing that parents in many underserved communities cannot afford the luxury to leave work and family early to attend Parent Teacher Association meetings and other school events, PSA decided to find another way to support parental involvement. It would be Saturday morning gatherings in schools willing to cooperate. The program would include presentations on avoiding risky behaviors, on testing as an inevitable tool for advancement, on the role of guidance counselors, on law enforcement, gang related issues, pathways to higher education – and much more. In addition, to the resourceful information, guests were invited to meet with other parents, enjoy breakfast and participate in a computer raffle.

Colmenero’s instincts proved correct. Parents, with children in tow, did show up, many visiting their children’s school for the first time. A 2006 PSA video featured a father who described his experience: “I didn’t know that my daughter was such a good reader. I did not know so many things. Now, I feel changed inside.”
The program began at a school in Dallas. With its proven success, PSA extended it to Garland, Irving, Fort Worth and other cities in the area. Still, skeptics remained. Colmenero likes to relate the case of one principal who said “It won’t work. The parents won’t come. We’ve tried. They don’t care.” To which she replied: “What if we do it on a Saturday morning and offer food and prizes?” “You’d be lucky if you get seventy-five people,” the principal answered. Well, more than 400 people showed up, and PSA had to scramble to get more McDonald’s breakfasts brought in.

I must point out – proudly – that although PSA was founded by and is led by Hispanics, its goal is to serve all parents and students in the schools in which it works. Hispanics are by far the largest percentage of children in the Dallas area, followed by Blacks, and then Whites and Asian Americans. And for many, planning for higher education was not a part of their daily lives. PSA has changed that attitude, and now children and their parents are empowered by knowledge and inspired by examples.

With the help of the City of Dallas, educators and civic leaders, PSA has also created an annual Family Month each March. The goal is to raise awareness about the importance and value of parental engagement, to recognize outstanding individuals, and to build a college-bound culture in the home. It works!

Expansion to San Antonio and Trenton

PSA Teacher Ambassadors in Washington D.C., 2014.

PSA Teacher Ambassadors in Washington D.C., 2014.

At the time, a public affairs executive at Educational Testing Service (ETS), I helped introduce the “tests are your friends, get ready for them” component in the program. I took a risk and argued successfully for an ETS grant to PSA. That was in 2006, and we have been there ever since. In fact, our Center for Advocacy and Philanthropy (CAAP) joined PSA in funding the “Teacher Ambassador” program that enables teachers to reach out to uninvolved parents, to get them in the schools.

Today, the best teacher ambassadors of the year – four from the Dallas area and two from San Antonio – are rewarded with a trip to Washington, D.C. The trip includes visits to the U.S. Capitol, the White House, the Department of Education and other agencies. For most, it is their first time in the nation’s capital.
The San Antonio program arose because that city is home to about 375 employees in ETS’s K-12 Division. So it was a natural. Many employees have become PSA volunteers. Cable Elementary School in San Antonio’s Northside School District was the first school with a PSA program. And its principal, Rosie Siller was among the Teacher Ambassadors chosen to visit Washington, D.C. in 2012.

Trenton? Trenton? Why Trenton? Isn’t that a bit far afield for a small Dallas-based nonprofit? Yes, it is far afield. But, first, New Jersey’s capital is just 10 miles from Educational Testing Service’s headquarters in Princeton. Second, the school district has faced many challenges. Third, PSA’s association with LATINA Style magazine meant that some area corporate support might be possible. The response was positive, and plans are now on track to extend the PSA model to Trenton.

And for Educational Testing Service, helping PSA apply its successful model in Trenton aligns perfectly with the ETS mission to help advance quality and equity in education, particularly for the underserved and disadvantaged. That’s Trenton.

“As a member of PSA’s advisory committee, I have seen its work up close. It can make valued contributions to increase educational opportunity in Trenton,” said Lenora Green, Senior Director, ETS Center for Advocacy and Philanthropy. “We at ETS look forward to welcoming them to the Garden State in the near future.”

Moving Forward

Teacher Ambassadors at the Korean Memorial in Washington D.C., 2014.

Teacher Ambassadors at the Korean Memorial in Washington D.C., 2014.

PSA has collected data on families, including the level of educational attainment and employment of parents and attitudes toward higher education. Given that one of the goals of PSA is to encourage access to higher education, the organization can now point to many success stories that illustrate how knowledge, guidance and determination can make higher education a reality.

The challenge to meet the many needs remains, however. PSA is one of those fine, successful models that need to be taken to scale. It is developing a curriculum that can be shared with and applied in schools anywhere. It offers its programs for free. But the work that goes into them costs money. PSA plows donations, both in-kind and financial, into programs, not into offices, staff and other things.

Today, Colmenero devotes her time as a volunteer. Members of the activist Board of Directors not only contribute, they pay their own expenses to attend meetings. PSA has only two paid staff. The reach, the impact and the benefits, however, are incalculable.

Many more parents, children, schools and teachers could benefit from the model if PSA had the resources to move to scale. That is no small task. Previous appeals to foundations were met with the reply: “You have a wonderful program, but you are too small.” Well, how does an organization grow if it is faulted for being small?” Catch 21 at work!

The organization held its 9th anniversary awards dinner in Dallas on Friday, December 5. The speeches, awards to parents and guardians and the entire evening are inspirational. As it has done every year, the program reaches the hearts and minds of all within reach.
Next year, PSA’s 10th anniversary celebration will take place on December 4, 2015 in Dallas. At that time, outstanding parents, supporters, teachers and others will be recognized. It is an occasion at which Parents Step Ahead must be recognized, too. Selfless dedication, service, proven success and tangible benefits to so many communities must not be left unrewarded.

True to its origins and commitment, PSA will mark its 10th anniversary not only with a dinner and awards. It will also hold day-long conference during which experts will analyze challenges and present best practices and success stories. PSA welcomes all to join in the fundraising efforts through “Go Fund Me,” at gofundme.com/parentsoftheyear to support its expansion and be a part of the village that makes a difference in school communities for parents and their children. For more information on PSA and its anniversary, contact [email protected]

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(L-R) Lupita Colmenero, Annabel Vias, teacher, Cable Elementary (San Antonio, TX); Lenora Green, Senior Director, Center for Advocacy and Philanthropy at ETS; Lissete Cruz, Teacher of the Year, Anson Jones Middle School (San Antonio, TX) and Ivonne Diaz, CEO of HISPA.