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Teach Their Parents Well

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San Antonio

Gloria Rodriguez's frustration with teaching reached its peak when she saw a colleague shove one of her former pupils against the wall, sending the 2nd grader stumbling into a trash can.

The scene, for Rodriguez, was a frightening allegory for how she'd seen schools label and cast as failures the very children who most needed their help. "I couldn't stop crying," she remembers.

The incident helped kindle a flame that led Rodriguez to launch Avance, a program that works with families to teach parents how to be their children's most powerful advocates and role models.

The 21-year-old program, one of the first of its kind in the nation, is based in Rodriguez's native San Antonio. It operates in housing projects, schools, and community centers here and in Houston and the Rio Grande Valley. With Rodriguez at the helm as the president and chief executive officer, Avance now serves more than 6,000 parents and children a year.

Although the program does work with schools, it grew out of Rodriguez's conviction that teachers alone cannot create the conditions necessary to help poor children succeed.

Rodriguez was trying to save the child pushed into the trash can--whose 12 brothers and sisters all dropped out of school--from a similar fate. She had encouraged the girl, who had been her pupil the year before and was struggling academically, to come to her room after school for help with reading. But that didn't sit well with the other teacher, who got angry when the girl defied her and sought the extra help anyway, Rodriguez says.

But Rodriguez achieved a victory, she says, when she marched to the girl's home and talked her father into confronting the principal. "His first reaction was that he couldn't," she recalls. "He had never set foot in the school, he didn't speak English, he didn't have the right clothes." He had also assumed, Rodriguez adds, that "schools had the right to do whatever."

"But the next day, he went to the school, and I could hear him speaking out," she recalls. "That was a turning point for me."

Work in Progress

The formula Avance uses to bring other parents to this point has won it national acclaim for passing literacy from parent to child and for helping deter crime, child abuse, and mental-health problems. The word Avance, in Spanish, means to advance or progress.

The program recruits mothers from poor, predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods for workshops and classes in centers with on-site nurseries. Outfitted with cozy furniture and educational toys and adorned with murals and inspirational messages, the centers offer a welcome setting for mothers isolated by a lack of transportation and opportunity. Here, they can socialize and check in on their babies while learning how children grow and what they can do to stimulate a love of learning.

Bilingual parent-educators explain the stages of social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development in nontechnical language, using props and transparencies featuring Hispanic families. They also make periodic home visits to help mothers apply their new knowledge and steer them to other resources they need.

Many parents are drawn to Avance for the toymaking sessions that teach them to craft simple dolls and other playthings to use as learning tools at home. It's an appealing proposition for those who can scarcely afford such luxuries.

"I liked the idea of making toys," confides Celia Garcia, a woman who entered Avance in 1978 and has seen her five children reap the benefits--all have gone to college or technical schools and found good jobs.

After their parenting classes, many mothers stay in the program to pursue their own studies, completing General Educational Development certificates and earning college credits in classes at the centers. Others go on to local universities.

Garcia, for example, completed her g.e.d. and went on to get her associate's degree in sociology at San Antonio College. Now, she works with teenage mothers and their young children at a school-based program run by the y.m.c.a.

Like many parenting programs, Avance was designed primarily for mothers. But in 1988, Rodriguez launched a fatherhood program that offers similar classes and support groups in the evenings for men. Avance also sponsors family field trips and cultural and social events.

Hope for the Future

Sixteen-year-old Rita San Miguel was playing on the floor with her 1-year-old son at the Mirasol housing project when Rodriguez rapped on her door 20 years ago and enticed her to check out the first Avance center there.

"She wouldn't even look up and talk to me," Rodriguez recalls.

But San Miguel took Rodriguez up on her offer. And, like many Avance graduates, she went on from toymaking and parenting sessions to become an employee. Over the years, she's cleaned, answered phones, and driven a van for the center. Now, she heads the literacy department of the San Antonio chapter.

Under the program's tutelage, San Miguel also got her g.e.d. and high school diploma. Today, she has 42 hours of college credit and 72 in management training under her belt. Avance helped her with expenses and aid applications, cared for her children, and even prodded her to get a driver's license.

"Gloria would come to my house after work and sit outside with me with a book and make me study," San Miguel remembers with a smile.

Rocelia Trujillo, a 23-year-old mother of three, came to Avance two years ago. She was already active in her children's schooling--she's now a P.T.A. president--but Avance has taught her some valuable lessons about discipline. Instead of lashing out at her children, for example, Trujillo has learned to wait five minutes and discuss the problem calmly. "I've learned to control my anger," she says, "not to take it out on them."

Rose Marie Gandara was leery about leaving her son in day care, but she liked the Avance program at his school where she could get to know the teachers and keep tabs on Dwight. "Now, we get our backpacks and go to school together," she says. "And I tell him I'm trying to do the same thing he is."

Gloria Gonzales, a former Avance participant who is now the supervisor of children's services at the Mirasol center, says women in her community were not encouraged to pursue higher education or careers. But Avance "planted the seed in me," she says, and now "I see my daughters wanting to make something of their lives."

Strategy for Success

Many mothers say they see a distinct difference in the younger children they raised under Avance's influence: They have a passion for reading and tend to outshine their older siblings in academics.

When Rodriguez, as a graduate student, surveyed mothers in the barrios, she was dismayed to find that most did not think their children would get further in school than they did--the 7th or 8th grade.

A survey of the 23 women and 32 children who attended a 1991 reunion of Avance's first group of 31 women defied those expectations. When they entered the program in 1973, 91 percent of the mothers had dropped out of school. In 1991, 94 percent of the children had either completed high school, received a g.e.d., or were still in school; 43 percent of those who had graduated were attending college.

Fifty-seven percent of the mothers who had dropped out had gotten g.e.d.'s, and 64 percent of those who finished high school or a g.e.d. had attended college or a technical program.

Another 1991 evaluation showed that Avance mothers provided more stimulating home environments, spent more time nurturing and teaching their children, and were less likely to use physical punishment than mothers in a control group. They were also more confident of their parenting skills and more informed about community resources. Differences in program and control-group children's intelligence-test scores and behavioral ratings were not significant, but project researchers hope to compile more data to capture those effects over time.

The two-year study did not, however, indicate that the program was easing depression among mothers, an issue Rodriguez says Avance is trying to address more aggressively. Centers housed in crime-ridden, violent neighborhoods are not insulated from the problems of their communities, Avance staff members say.

Centers have had to contend with graffiti, rock-throwing, and break-ins. But, as residents come to recognize their value, even gang members help keep the sites "off limits" to intruders, notes Lorena Gonzales, the director of the center-based Avance programs in San Antonio.

Faith in Family

Rodriguez set out to foster a sense of family in Avance. "I wanted to re-create what happened in my own life," she explains. Although she grew up in poverty in a housing project with a widowed mother who never got beyond the 3rd grade, Rodriguez and her seven siblings excelled in school and pursued college, advanced degrees, or professional training.

What made that possible, Rodriguez believes, is that her mother and live-in grandfather placed a high value on education, set high expectations, and instilled confidence in their children. Those values inspired Rodriguez to become a bilingual teacher through Project Teacher Excellence, a program that helped pay college tuition for youths from the barrios to stay in their communities and teach.

"We were taught that we could really make an impact and improve the lives of our people through education," Rodriguez says. It came as a shock, though, when she encountered 1st graders who had never held a pencil, weren't proficient in English or Spanish, and, "when you got close, thought you were going to hit them."

To make matters worse, the school where she first taught had labeled some of those children mentally retarded and ineducable. Rodriguez left teaching after a few years with an eye to becoming a principal. But a graduate course highlighting research on parent education set her on a different path. During her studies, she met up with some students of Cornell University child psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner who were writing a grant proposal for a parenting program--a connection that led toRodriguez becoming the first director of Avance in San Antonio.

With the support of businesses and foundations over the years, Avance has grown from one center to 45 sites and upped its annual budget from $50,000 to $4 million. One of its greatest fans is David A. Hamburg, the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which cited Avance in a recent report on the critical birth-to-3 age span. In fact, Hamburg drummed up so much support for Avance after a 1987 visit that staff members refer to the preceding period as B.C.: before Carnegie.

The program has also expanded into 24 schools through the federal Even Start and Project First programs and runs comprehensive child-development projects--a federal program that coordinates services for poor families with young children--at two Avance sites. An area grocery-store chain recently pitched in aid for four more school-based family centers.

Food banks, churches, and civic groups donate food and other services to Avance, and parenting sessions include speakers from community agencies. Local universities, including Rodriguez's alma mater Our Lady of the Lake, let Avance use their campuses for full-fledged graduation ceremonies, where parents and children march together in caps and gowns.

Ready for Replication

Last month, Avance's board decided to share its success with others nationwide.

Although Avance did establish a national training center in 1990, Rodriguez, who has seen social programs come and go, has been leery of large-scale expansion. "I do not want to export it if I cannot be assured that the programs will survive and that they will maintain quality," she says.

But a consortium of foundations and businesses has been helping Avance chart a strategy for "quality control," and the board last month agreed to launch 30 affiliates over three years. The plan would involve linking up with school districts, Head Start programs, housing projects, and other organizations to add chapters in Texas and target other states with large numbers of Hispanic poor.

Avance focuses on Hispanics partly because they are the fastest-growing minority population--and the one with the highest dropout rate. But, as long as the programs adhere to a clear set of principles and standards, Rodriguez says, they can work as effectively in other distressed communities.

"Unless we get communities strong," she reflects, "we are going to keep solving problems the wrong way--with more prisons and more police."

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