This Solutions Journalism story is supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation for in-depth reporting on Latino education equity opportunities and gaps. It’s also supported by the caring, creative, challenging learning journey as part of the SJN Labor Cohort.

Hanna struggled with reading long sentences and found big words challenging. Her mother, Patricia Ojeda, decided to get involved in her education. They started with reading sessions at home and training provided by her teachers.

Hanna is a 10-year-old fourth-grade student with high academic goals.

Mateo is 8-years old and in third grade and has serious reading difficulties. Patricia believes he fell behind during the pandemic. She met with her son’s teacher, and they agreed that he should attend special classes because together they discovered he mixes up letters.

Gael is 5-years old, and already reading and about to finish kindergarten.

Patricia says that “he falls in love with letters and colors.” The only problem, she says, is that her son doesn’t like to speak Spanish, but he has improved in bilingual classes.

The three siblings attend a public elementary school in south Phoenix, a predominantly Latino neighborhood where the Macías family lives. Patricia’s husband, Narciso Macías, works long hours to cover the expenses of the family.

Hanna, Mateo, and Gael are receiving specialized attention and support thanks to Patricia’s participation in the Parent Educator Academy, a program of All In Education, designed to train parents to navigate Arizona’s school districts, be their child’s best advocate and empower them as leaders in their own communities.

But their older siblings, José, 23, Cristóbal, 20, and Itzel, 15, had to face the Arizona education system without the same level of support.

Patricia Ojeda, one of the attendees at the Parent Educator Academy, helps her children Gael and Hanna read. Credit: Beatriz Limón

Patricia was able to participate in the workshop because it was flexible and she could attend from home via Zoom. “It wasn’t difficult, they just send you the link, and you click on it,” she said.

The online workshops are facilitated by TNTP, a nonprofit organization working to reduce inequality in school systems and improve outcomes for students across the U.S.

A few years ago, Patricia didn’t know how to approach the school and participate in her children’s education. Her English-language skills and cultural barriers made her feel intimidated and kept her from speaking with teachers.

“Before the academy, I didn’t dare to speak up. Now I can voice my concerns about the decisions they are making regarding my children,” Patricia said.

Patricia’s children attend Ed and Verma Pastor Elementary School, part of the Roosevelt School District, where 81.6% of the students are Latino, 11.9% are Black, 2.9% are White, 1.3% are Native American, and 0.8% are Asian.

Dr. Dani Portillo, superintendent of the Roosevelt School District, was born in Honduras and says as an immigrant she knows the challenges of immigrant families in Arizona. Credit: Roosevelt School District

A bridge for immigrant families

Dr. Dani Portillo has just assumed leadership of the Roosevelt School District. As an immigrant herself who was born in Honduras and experienced the Arizona education system firsthand, she is familiar with the challenges faced by families of color.

A student at Ed and Verma Pastor Elementary School, Hanna dreams of becoming a veterinarian. Credit: Beatriz Limón

“We are typical immigrants. We don’t come from wealthy families; instead, we had to go through everything that comes with establishing ourselves in another country,” she said. “It’s very difficult for families because the education system here in Arizona is complex, and it’s even more challenging when there’s a language barrier.”

She said that the Parent Educator Academy helps immigrant families understand the education system “and, most importantly, empowers us to know that parents have rights.”

Though Patricia is familiar with the education system in her home country, she was less confident about the U.S. system. The academy helps caregivers learn to navigate an unfamiliar system with persistent inequalities for Latino families like Patricia’s.

Latino students make up almost half of Arizona’s 1.1 million K-12 students, but there are opportunity gaps in academic success, university enrollment and degree attainment between Latino students and White students.

Of the 39,626 Latino students who entered high school in 2020, only 29,725 graduated, according to the All In Education’s study, MAPA: The State Of Arizona Latinos Education, Power, and Influence.

Only 6,472 Latino students enrolled in an Arizona university, and of those students, only 3,471 completed their bachelor’s degrees, according to the study. The report also reviewed data from the Arizona Department of Education for fiscal years 2015-2020 and found an estimated 8-percentage point gap between the rate at which Latino students graduate high school compared to White students.

Various issues keep Latino parents from being proactive in the schools their children attend. Livier Delgadillo, senior director of the leadership program at All In Education, believes the main mistake is placing complete trust in the educational system of this country.

“Especially Latino parents believe that the system is working because they have been told that this system is the best,” said Delgadillo, who grew up on the border in Nogales, Arizona and is one of the trainers in the academy.

“Many of us who work here were born on the border or in Latino communities. We know the barriers that Latinos face in education, such as language and lack of knowledge about what is happening in Arizona’s education system,” Delgadillo said.

An unequal education system

Gloria Castejón, who was a teacher in California for many years and is familiar with the Arizona education system, said that the vast majority of Latino parents are unaware that this system has excluded minorities from academic privileges for decades.

“I know that part well. I walked through the system; I broke through. We have the barrier of White and Latino, and many more teachers are White,” she said. “That’s why I got discouraged and stopped being a teacher in California.”

Gloria took part in the academy as a parent in December 2021.

In Arizona, the number of bilingual and Latino teachers is not representative of the number of students of that ethnicity.

Only 16% of the more than 58,000 teachers in Arizona are Latino, according to data from the Arizona Department of Education analyzed by All In Education in a 2021-22 report. Latino students are expected to represent more than 50% of the student population in the state by 2026.

Parents graduate in Phoenix from the Parent Educator Academy. Credit: Cortesía ALL In Education

Gloria said she decided to leave teaching after witnessing how Latino students were excluded from educational equity in California. However, the reality did not change when she moved to Arizona.

“It was a shock. I was surprised when I realized that Native Americans here are put in a category very similar to Latinos, and they are born in the United States; they are the owners of this land,” she said.

Gloria is the mother of three children: Jelani, 30, and Josh, 20, both with degrees. Meanwhile, Gabriel, 18 years old, is graduating from high school in May.

She became interested in the academy program because they were inviting parents from César Chávez High School, located in South Phoenix, where her son Gabriel attends.

“They sent me an application, and I thought, ‘This is the moment to share my knowledge.’ That did happen, and I also discovered other things,” she said.

The program is designed to empower parents as instructional assistants and help them bridge the critical communication gap between schools and families, while also supporting their children academically.

“With the workshop, I came to remember things I had forgotten, but above all, to navigate the system in a different way because I have the knowledge since I am a teacher,” she said.

Gloria immigrated to the United States when she was 14 from Fresnillo, Zacatecas, México. 

“I crossed the border and arrived in San Diego. I can relate to my people because I have experienced everything; I come from there,” said Gloria.

She remembers arriving in the U.S. without support, facing an educational system where the English language was her first barrier. 

“I know what it’s like to navigate a system without support, and having parents without education also plays a significant role,” she said. “It’s not that parents don’t want to support you, but they lack the knowledge to do so, and they are also busy working.”

She believes that the Parent Educator Academy workshops are a small but mighty aid to immigrant families who encounter a repressive system in schools where much more needs to be done.

“This program is like water in a very dry land,” she said. “Our parents have to fight hard; they will have to break the system, and for that, they need knowledge of the system.”

“This academy needs follow-up because it’s an information-packed journey, and many parents are not ready to grasp so many concepts that they need to process,” she said.

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Advocating for a fair education

Patricia doesn’t speak English, so for years she felt intimidated to approach her children’s school and have a conversation with the teachers about their progress or needs.

“I wasn’t involved much. If there was any kind of bullying or if a teacher was misbehaving, you don’t even dare to approach the school,” she said.

But everything changed for Patricia when she completed her training in 2022; she felt more empowered to advocate for the education of Hanna, Mateo and Gael.

The objective of the academy, which is taught in Spanish and English, is to train parents as community leaders and encourage their greater involvement in their children’s education.

Parents receive training workshops that guide them through courses to help them understand diversity, equity, and inclusion in classrooms. 

Patricia is convinced that if she had the tools provided by the academy years ago, she could have helped all her children progress effectively in their education. In fact, she had only one concern after the initial training — she wanted to take a second course. 

She moved from Aguascalientes, México to Phoenix more than two decades ago, and her six children were born in Arizona.

“José studied business communication at ASU, the credit for completing his degree goes to him; we only supported him financially,” Patricia said. “Cristóbal didn’t want to study.”

But after taking the workshop, she realized that she could have helped José complete his degree faster and motivated Cristóbal to continue studying.

“Now I know that my daughter Itzel, who is in ninth grade, can already take college-level classes. I didn’t know that,” she said. 

Connecting parents and educators

The Parent Educator Academy was founded in 2020 to help parents meet the educational needs of their children, Delgadillo said.

Livier Delgadillo, senior director of the leadership program at All In Education and coordinator of the Parent Educator Academy. Credit: Cortesía ALL In Education

“We created the academy because we saw a systemic gap between parents and schools. We wanted to eliminate that divide and foster communication,” she said.

The academy started with 29 participants in five different schools, 21 from Phoenix and six from Yuma. Twenty-three parents identified as Latino, three as Black, and one as White. There were 27 women and one man. Seventeen participants preferred materials and workshops in Spanish, while 10 preferred English.

“Currently, we are entering the fifth cohort. We have grown significantly, as each academy has had over 100 parents, and we have had over 94% retention and graduation rates,” she said. “We serve parents from more than 30 schools in Maricopa, Yuma, and Pima counties.”

Delgadillo mentioned that in the final workshop held last year, nearly 90% of the 120 participants identified as Latino and requested training in Spanish, while the rest took classes in English.

According to surveys, Delgadillo said significant progress has been made for families impacted by the academy. The only limitation is the lack of instructors due to the high demand from parents interested in the workshop.

“The waiting list is due to a lack of staff capacity,” she said. “Last year, we received over 400 expressions of interest, but we could only select 120 parents. We have a total of nine employees, but only three deliver the courses.”

Delgadillo said the courses last eight weeks, with 16 sessions of an hour and a half each. The Zoom sessions accommodate 120 parents, and three trainers conduct workshops in Spanish and English.

“To be selected, they must attend two out of three of our informational sessions, fill out our expression of interest form, and then we send them an invitation to join the academy,” she said.

The most recent course started in the spring but they accept applications on a rotating basis year-round.

Success in TUSD

Rosa Escalante works as a school community liaison for the Tucson Unified School District, the largest district in Southern Arizona. She’s seen the parent academy’s success in local schools in the district.

“It’s a very comprehensive program that opens parents’ eyes so they can navigate the American education system,” she said. “They learn how education is managed in the United States.”

Rosa said they started recruiting parents in the fall of 2022. Last year, they had two workshops, and a new workshop began in March that already concluded.

She said she’s observed that parents feel more confident after taking the workshop.

“They go to schools with the assurance that they are no longer alone. Now they have everything in writing, they go with a list of what they want to address and solve, they are informed,” she said. “They come with their little book that says this is how it should be, it’s not just what I think.”

However, she said that the limited number of trainers cannot meet the great need in the community — there is always a waiting list.

Rosa has been a liaison between the community and schools in TUSD for years. She is certain that parent academy “is the beginning of something very significant.”

“This academy is very important for our Hispanic community,” she said. “With this program, parents realize why they need to be knowledgeable about their children’s education. It’s not just about taking them to school, but about empowering themselves as leaders.”

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Beatriz Limón es una periodista independiente que fue corresponsal en Arizona y Nuevo México de la Agencia Internacional de Noticias EFE. Licenciada en Ciencias de la Comunicación, fotógrafa profesional...