This article originally appeared on withGanas.org, a blog hosted by Steven Farr, Sr. Director of Classroom Leadership at Teach For All. Veronica Palmer will be speaking about her experiences leading RISE at the Teach For All Global System Change Conference on April 4th in Santiago, Chile. For updates from this event, follow @TeachForAll and @ensenachile on Twitter or search for the hashtags #TFALLNLT and #5AÑOSECH.
“Do you know where you come from? Do you know where you’re going?” These questions hail from the Ghanaian proverb, Sankofa, which embodies the notion that one must know where they came from in order to know where they are going. I’ve held these questions near and dear to my heart for many years now. Embracing where I come from makes it easier to truly understand where I am going.
Here’s where I come from. Most recently I come from being a proud Latina and working mother of two beautiful bi-racial children, Trey and Avianna. I come from being a wife of eight years to a strong and brilliant African American man. I come from being a teacher to 3rd grade and Kindergarten students from low income communities in Los Angeles and I come from being a coach and mentor for Teach For America (TFA), as a teacher coach to elementary corps members in the greater Los Angeles area.
Yet, prior to that I come from a family with deep roots in Colorado. I am a sixth generation Colorado native on one side of my family and a relatively recent second generation US citizen on the other. My family’s experience has been the biggest influence in building my passions. I went to public schools while growing up, and always noticed I was one of the only Latinas in my high school AP classes. The story didn’t change once I went to college. I seldom saw many people of my color in the same classes as me, and I knew there was something wrong with that.
One of the biggest influencers during my childhood was my grandmother, Alberta Liebert, who had been very involved in the Chicano movement in Denver when she was young. She had been in a gang, lived in the projects, got pregnant with my dad as a teenager, lived on welfare and dropped out of school. At one point in her life she realized that the only path that would lead her outside of the dead end world she found herself in was through education. She went back to school, obtained her GED, Bachelor’s degree and then a Master’s degree in social work. She worked as a licensed social worker for more than 25 years in Denver Public Schools. My grandmother is a living example that education changes your life and an entire family’s trajectory for generations to come. To me, it is the ultimate example of the power of families uplifting themselves through education.
My grandma’s example made it clear why I had to become an educator. I wanted to serve and hopefully inspire Latino, African American, Native American and other underserved students and families by helping to educate them. So, I joined TFA as a 2006 Los Angeles corps member and taught 3rd grade in Lynwood Unified School District. Later I was a founding teacher at KIPP Raices Academy in East LA. What I learned from being in the classroom was that, although I absolutely loved my time teaching students, I also quickly realized the potential of another group present in the school: parents and families. I saw the influence that families can have over their child’s education, so I decided to get more involved with them and again I saw the awesome power of family.
I began doing home visits with families and introducing myself. I met with all of my students’ families and realized that they were eager to get involved and have a voice. My students’ families and I worked together in partnership, ensuring that their children were not only receiving an excellent education, but were also creating the best school environment possible for themselves and their children. The families I worked with became very involved in shaping the school, and I quickly noticed that the families were building a sense of community and a support network among themselves. They weren’t just worried about the success of their one child, but rather, for the entire class and school community. Together we established the Parent Advisory Council, created a strong school culture, organized Nutrition Nights, raised funds, wrote grants, organized our yearly Winter Concert and Carnival and created “Parent-share nights” where parents educated each other about how to help their children at home with reading, writing, math and much more.
This power of families led me to want to share my vision for family engagement to a wider audience. I decided to become an teacher coach for TFA in 2010 because I wanted to have a greater impact. I wanted to work with corps members and get them invested in why families must be deeply and profoundly engaged in the education of their children. As an teacher coach it is sometimes hard to live out your specific passions through your corps members. Yet I found a way to do it in my second year as an teacher coach when I hosted a Parent Opportunity Gap (POG) Night event with some of my corps members for about 200 families in their school community.
At the Parent Opportunity Gap Night, through PowerPoint presentations, the teachers bravely reported the grim statistics about educational inequity within their communities. After hearing these hard truths, families wrote their own vision statements for their hopes and dreams for their child’s education. The teachers discussed how families, administrators, and teachers could work collaboratively to overcome educational inequity. For homework, we asked them to have a discussion with their children and create a plan for how they were going to overcome the potential barriers of educational inequity. This event lit a fire and sparked so many reactions that I knew this couldn’t be a one-time event. I had to somehow replicate this evening throughout Los Angeles in order to build the parent movement. I ended up hosting thirteen Parent Opportunity Gap Nights across LA ranging from Early Childhood Education to High School, and that’s when I realized, I knew what was next for me.
I loved the work I was able to do as an teacher coach and I realized that I wanted to somehow make parent engagement my full time job and focus. I moved back to Colorado eight months ago and joined forces with two other incredible Latina leaders. Milagros Barsallo, a 2009 TFA Colorado corps member of Panamanian decent, was doing incredible work with Tangia Al-awaji Estrada, an Afro-Latina from Colorado. When we began discussing our common goals and interests in relation to family engagement, we realized that we could join forces to build a full fluid model of educating, engaging and empowering families in Aurora, Colorado. In May 2012, we formed our organization, RISE Colorado, with the idea of families rising up and creating a new day in education where they can stake their claim in the education system and become the number one advocate for their child. Our mission is to educate, engage and empower low income families and families of color to end educational inequity in our public school system. These are lofty goals for any educational organization but we feel our mission is non-negotiable.
My co-founders and I started RISE because we truly believe that families are the sleeping giant in the fight to end educational inequity. In our experience, when families have the knowledge about educational inequity and the tools to help their children at home and in school, families will stop at nothing to ensure their children are successful. There is a prevailing lack of knowledge in this country regarding what educational inequity is and how it can affect a child’s life trajectory. This is especially true in low income and communities of color, and it is the children in these communities who disproportionately populate our nation’s failing schools. Today, 73% of our nation’s lowest performing schools serve high minority populations, and 68% of them serve students qualifying for free and reduced lunch.[i] Nationally, black and Latino high school seniors are performing on average at the same level as white students in eighth grade in both reading and math[ii]. Here in Colorado, Latino and black students perform on average two years behind their white counterparts[iii]. And in 2010, only 60.5% of African American students and 54.6% of Latino students graduated from Denver Public Schools.[iv]
Unfortunately, families aren’t always provided the essential information regarding the inequity that exists nor given the tools to overcome it. RISE provides families with this important information so that families in the communities most impacted by educational inequity can make the necessary changes to ensure their children are receiving an excellent education. Knowing that social justice movements have been led by those most impacted by inequity, we believe that our families can and must lead the movement to end educational inequity for their children, themselves, and our communities. Until our families are leading this movement to end educational inequity – because they have the most at stake and are the most impacted – educational equity won’t ever truly exist.The parent movement RISE Colorado is starting to build is led by families for families in our communities most impacted by educational inequity.
Having been a teacher and teacher coach I am acutely aware of the fact that educators have their students for approximately 180 days. Families, however, have their children for the rest of their lives. When families are empowered with the mindsets, knowledge, tools, and skills to be the number one advocate for their child’s educational career, that information will be carried with that family for the rest of their lives. Harkening back to my grandma, Alberta: because of the education she acquired which uplifted my family, as a result my dad went to college, I went to college, and now my children will have the opportunity to attend college. I truly believe in the “trickle down” effect where when a family has the necessary knowledge, skills and tools those things will immediately transfer to their children, ensuring they have everything possible to be successful. When families are asked to think of their hopes and dreams for their children and are given the important knowledge and tools, there’s no limit to what a family can and will do to ensure their children fulfill those hopes and dreams.
Our theory of change and vision for RISE Colorado is founded on the belief that families are crucial to student and school success. Through knowledge, leadership development, and organizing, our families will end educational inequity. We believe they will become active leaders who have a voice and the tools to define, demand and lead systemic change to transform our public schools. What does this look like? Empowerment starts on day one. Our families will work together to create a movement and become leaders that have a voice vital to leading change in our public school system. Ultimately, families will deepen their involvement in schools and become key decision makers who will ensure that students most impacted by educational inequity have the preparedness and opportunity to make it to and through college. We are firm in our belief that our families must have a seat at every decision-making table that will have an impact on them and their children’s education. We believe that to truly end educational inequity we must empower families to not just think of short-term solutions, but to be strategic and take the time to invest in long-term solutions and systemic change in order to achieve educational equity.
RISE has been on the ground working in Aurora Public Schools since September 2013. We are proud to say we are currently working in three Aurora Public schools-1 elementary school and 2 Childhood Development Centers (CDC), 3 Aurora refugee communities-Nepali, Somali, and Burmese along with a secondary high school pilot in Denver. Our impact to date includes 4 school-wide Parent Opportunity Gap Nights at our elementary, CDC and high school partner schools with an attendance of 200 families who were informed about educational inequity and the important role they as families play in ending it. We built strong teams and coalitions of 42 school and district staff who played important roles in planning and executing the workshops at each of our partner school sites. We’ve also had our first Parent Opportunity Gap Event specifically for Nepali refugee families with over 50 families attending. We’ll be having a POG event for Somali refugee families in April and for Burmese and Korin refugee families in May.
According to survey data, 100% of families: 1.) Learned new information, 2.) Want to attend more RISE Colorado workshops to obtain more information about ending educational inequity and 3.) Want to be more involved at their child’s school as a result of attending the POG Night. According to additional survey data, 100% of partner teachers at our elementary school: 1.) Identified POG Night as the first time they had ever discussed the achievement gap with their students’ families and 2.) Feel that RISE Colorado is helping to deepen their school’s relationships with families. We are scheduled to continue to deliver workshop programming at all partner schools for the remainder of the 2013-2014 school year as school coalitions of families begin to come together to start organizing.
Founding your own organization comes with many successes but also a great deal of struggle as well. For example, according to a study conducted at UC Santa Cruz, there were only 10.5% of New Latino Entrepreneurs in 1996 in the United States (Robert W. Fairlie, University of California, Santa Cruz). In 2011 there were 22.9% new Latino Entrepreneurs (Robert W. Fairlie, University of California, Santa Cruz). We might consider that significant growth in 15 years but when it is compared to 60.2% of White Entrepreneurs, those statistics can become discouraging. Being a Latina social entrepreneur is particularly difficult! You never really know just how difficult something is going to be until you’re in the thick of it.
My co-founders and I have had many tactical obstacles as well while trying to get RISE up and running. We’ve all three experienced various challenges such as uprooting our families and moving to Colorado to do this work and having to work part-time at other jobs to bring home a salary because RISE is not yet fully funded. We’ve also received a high degree of push back for having a shared leadership model with three women of color at the helm who share equal responsibility and power. These tactical obstacles have been challenging as we continue to work through them. Challenges keep us grounded and help us to remember why we are doing this important work and to be thankful that we have this opportunity to work in our communities with our families. We reflect the communities we serve and are extremely proud to have the privilege to work with our families and communities in this way.
We realize that we must not only knock down barriers, but bust them wide open. Not just for ourselves but also for future social entrepreneurs of color. We must get people to recognize and support those who come from the communities most impacted by educational inequity and work to do something about it. Given our challenges in launching RISE we also hope to support other Latinas and entrepreneurs of color through sharing our resources and the lessons we’ve learned along the way. We believe it is our responsibility as women and entrepreneurs of color, to remove obstacles so that more opportunities will be available in the future to those who want to do this work.
I RISE because in order to truly end educational inequity our families and their children must be at the forefront leading this movement. They are the most impacted and have the most at stake. If not our families, who? And if not now, when?
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Please join RISE Colorado as we educate, engage and empower families to become their child’s number one advocate and stake their claim in our public education system. Our families deserve to know the reality of educational inequity and how to overcome it. RISE with us to build the parent movement for educational equity in all communities!
[i] Institute of Education Sciences: The National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. (2011). Baseline Analyses of SIG Applications and SIG-Eligible and SIG-Awarded Schools. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20114019/sec_5.asp
[ii] Wiltz, T. (2012, January 25). Educators alarmed: Black, Latino high school students perform at levels of 30 years ago. America’s Wire. Retrieved from http://americaswire.org/drupal7/?q=content/educators-alarmed-black-latino-high-school-students-perform-levels-30-years-ago
[iii] The University of Colorado Denver. (2006). The Achievement Gap: Colorado’s biggest (education)problem. Denver, CO. Retrieved from www.ucdenver.edu/academics/…/CEPA%20achievementgap.pdf
[iv] The Colorado Department of Education.(2011). Graduation rates for the class of 210: 2009-2010 cohort 5 by ethnicity/gender. Denver, CO. Retrieved from http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdereval/rv2010GradLinks.htm.