Family Feedback: A Lesson from the Rockies


The Valley Settlement Project is a two-generation program focused on school readiness, elementary school achievement, economic stability and community engagement for local families. Its focus is low-income families who are not successfully settled or attached to the community in which they live. Through community organizing and partnerships with local nonprofits, schools and government agencies, Valley Settlement Project works to support and empower these families. As an Ascend Network Partner, Valley Settlement Project believes it can reduce school achievement gaps through a two-generation approach.

The following blog, co-authored by Elaine Grossman (Director of Strategic Partnerships) and Maria Eloisa Duarte (Parent Mentor Coordinator), tells the story of how Valley Settlement Project addressed the needs of immigrant families in the community through an inspiring, challenging, and ultimately successful series of meetings with parents themselves about their own literacy and learning.

Elaine (E.): I began my work in community programs as a volunteer in a summer school program for poor children in 1965. I have held positions in nonprofit and public organizations and boards over the past 49 years, and only within the last three years have I really experienced what it is to listen and hear the voice of the community. I say this, of course, with the full realization that there is never just one voice. For the purpose of this blog, the voices that I am referring to are those of the Latino families, immigrants to the rural communities in central Colorado, in which I work. My position is called “Director of Strategic Partnerships.” The goals of Valley Settlement, a two-generation approach that engages and empowers families to successfully settle their family into this previously Anglo community, are school readiness for children and family economic stability. These goals were arrived at after meeting with 300 families and listening to their stories. The staff, bi-lingual and bi-cultural, were known within the Latino community, and established a trusting relationship over time. We use a community organizing approach and adhere to the “Iron rule”: never do for others what they can do for themselves.

One of the issues that emerged from interviews was the desire to learn English. A very high percentage of those interviewed said that this was important to them for their ability to work and to help and keep up with their children’s learning. Community organizers held meetings about English classes: what was available, what were the barriers, what was working and not. We began to develop contractual partnerships with other community organizations, advocated for change in other organizations and provided some classes in local schools to fill gaps, but the effort lacked leadership and focus, and faltered.

Maria Eloisa (M.E.): I had been living in Colorado for 5 years. I was a Mom to my two children, ages 1 and 9. My husband came here for a job. I did not like to go out because I was afraid. I did not know how to speak English. I did not know how to do anything here. My mother was very far away.  I wore my pajamas most of the time and had a very clean house and went to church. In my old country I was able to do much more. I had been to college.

E.: As we deepened relationships within the Latino community we also traveled as a team to visit other immigrant communities and to learn from their work. We met participants and graduates of the Parent Mentor program in Chicago at the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, and felt that this program was a great fit for building a bridge between home and school and community.  It provided an opportunity for neighborhood parents to volunteer in a public school for a full academic year, four days a week, with a fifth day of professional and personal development.  

M.E.: When I heard about the Parent Mentor program at my church I thought, why not? Both of my children went to school every day and I wanted to do something for my community and myself. I filled out an application and was accepted with 14 others.  The training was excellent and in September 2012, I started to work in Mr. K’s third grade class. Mr. K was very kind and very grateful for my help. I was able to help with the children, especially the ones who were having a hard time. There were also the “newcomers” who had just arrived from their country. Most of all, I was able to listen and encourage the children. I realized that I had something to give and that my being there every day really mattered. It was hard. While my house was not as clean, and I was very busy, but not earning money, I loved feeling that what I was doing really mattered.

One day I walked to my son’s junior high school next door and one of his teachers saw me and asked me in Spanish, “what has happened to M.?” (M is my son). I was concerned, but she told me that he was suddenly blossoming and doing very well. When I asked him about this later he told me that he decided that school must be very important if I am going every day, and he decided he needed to do better. He is now a senior and a national honor society member. Then I realized I had to do more and decided to go for my GED in English. It was very hard. I am not young, and learning all of this material in English and passing all of the sections was very difficult. I did it and graduated in June.

E.: The demand for more Parent Mentors grew and it became clear that Valley Settlement would need a leader for this program. M.E. was the best possible choice, as she had many followers and was an inspiration to many other parents who were afraid or depressed or oppressed and all trying to provide a better life for their children. She grew the program to 40 in her first year and became the voice of many within Valley Settlement. At many staff meetings we talked about our obligation to provide opportunities for learning English, because that is what we “heard” in our initial meetings. We asked M.E. why her Monday training sessions weren’t being conducted in English, or why more Parent Mentors weren’t enrolling in ELL classes, getting GEDs, jobs, etc.  

M.E..: As I began to learn my role as the Coordinator of the Parent Mentor Program, working with Mentors and the schools, I also had to figure out how to work as a staff person. I was not sure what I should say to which person and where to ask for what. The Mentors have so many needs, and yet they are doing so much in the classrooms because they feel so grateful to make a contribution. My English is getting better but it is still very slow at times. My supervisor keeps asking me if the Mentors are learning English. I know that learning English is a goal for many, but there are many steps to get to that place and I saw it as my job to help them once they were being successful in their classrooms. It realized it was also my job to get the staff at Valley Settlement to understand better what it takes to learn English for many of the adults in this community.

I had to figure out a way to make myself understood as they did not seem to hear me, although they were listening. I explained many times that an adult needs to have confidence and hope before they can move forward, and they need some basic education. Although the staff knew that 44 percent of the families report a 6th grade education or less, they did not understand what that meant. They did not understand that without a foundation in their own language they did not have the confidence or skills needed to learn English, and that without hope for a future, English did not matter.  I decided to ask my supervisor for her support and funds to address the education needs of the Mentors in a way that was very different from what she thought was needed. She asked me to describe what I wanted to do and why. I proposed: Lifelong Learning, a safe place for adults to get a basic education in Spanish, to prepare them to learn English as they gained confidence and became stronger emotionally and socially. My supervisor agreed and advocated with me within the staff.  

As 2014 began, I worked with some of the Mentors who had some college in their native country and a volunteer teacher from the schools on Saturdays to talk about how to help Spanish speakers learn English. We began “Lifelong Learning,” a two-hour class twice a week for any Mentor who wanted to participate. Valley Settlement provided babysitting and the teachers. I found free space. We found a placement tool that helped us to know what grade level in math and reading each person was in: Grades 1-4; 5-8 and GED prep. The secret: everything was taught in Spanish and 60 percent of the Mentors participated. Most of the teachers spoke little English, but their English improved rapidly through their time in the classroom as a Mentor and in the Valley Settlement office. Of the four Lifelong Learning teachers, I am proud to say that all of them have been hired into other paid positions!

As 2014 ends, Lifelong Learning now has over 115 enrollees in the communities. People are hungry, really desperate to learn. We have three men learning to hold a pencil and to write. They come every week to their four hour class after work, and each student pays for their classes. We have not promoted Lifelong Learning, but the word is getting out and we are working to find more money to respond to this unmet need.  I am grateful that I had the courage to speak up and that my supervisor really heard the voice of the community through me and supported my idea.

E.: I thought that we were listening to the voice of the community, but we need to keep listening and adapting. Listening has to be part of the culture of the organization.  Listening is not just an aggregated response of 300 voices, it is just a start. What I also take away from this lesson is the absolute need for a trusting relationship both between staff and the community but within the staff as well. I caution those who believe a “focus group” will yield them information they need in an hour. An organization also needs to be facile enough to be responsive and creative, and never to assume that it knows what someone else needs, as this will diminish its ability to listen.