At the Santa Ana Partnership, a Latino-centered collaborative focused on college completion in California, we thought we had it all figured out.
When involving local parents to help guide their children into and through college, we “did all the right things.” We were sensitive to scheduling meetings at times that accommodated parents’ work and family responsibilities. We partnered with institutions of higher education and K-12 schools to support parent events such as Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion nights and university campus visits. We thought we had discovered the right formula to engage parents of first-generation college students.
But our collaborative received a wake-up call when, in the 1990s, we conducted about 50 conversations with teachers, small business owners, parents, college-access professionals, students, principals, and elected officials throughout the community. During these conversations, we shared educational achievement data, in both English and Spanish, to frame the partnership’s priorities for student success programs. We learned that parents were expected to adapt to the culture of schools and were too often relegated to the margins—witnessing the work of educators rather than actively shaping it. While the parents appreciated the aims of our partnership, they believed they had few opportunities to meaningfully inform its program development and student services.
To shift this power dynamic and offer parents more agency in their children’s education, we adapted a parent engagement model from a partner organization, Latino Health Access. The organization had “promotores,” local residents who received special training and conducted informal grassroots outreach throughout the community, in places where parents and families lived, worked, and relaxed together. We drew from this model to launch the Padres Promotores de la Educación in 2001, which became a pillar of the Santa Ana Partnership.
From the start, Santa Ana College provided Padres Promotores with pro bono office space, along with technology and operational support. Partnership leaders leveraged funds from higher educational institutions and K-12 schools to offer modest stipends to the promotores. We also worked as a team to attract additional funds from foundations and corporations. In addition, we developed family services, including bilingual training seminars, home visits to discuss obstacles in the way of college enrollment, platicas (workshops), parent centers at local feeder schools that create space for topical workshops and parent-to-parent conversations about college, and a “Padre a Padre” workbook with basic lessons and tools to help parents support their child’s journey from kindergarten through college graduation. In addition, the Partnership provided monthly professional development sessions for the promotores, and hosted events for promotores as well as their spouses and children to showcase the work in progress. The annual Camino de Amistad, in which hundreds of parents, students, and educators canvas the entire community before the start of the school year to remind families about the support that the Padres Promotores can provide, quickly took hold. At this year’s July event, 600 parent volunteers reached more than 25,000 households.
Padres Promotores de la Educación is now a cornerstone program of the Santa Ana Partnership, and we have sustained the initiative with resources from private and corporate foundations, college and university funds, Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grants from the US Department of Education, and funding from local K-12 school districts. Santa Ana College staff continue to support the program by providing office space and technology, managing funds, supporting operations, and hosting continuous parent-to-parent activities, such as college orientations, campus tours, introductions to college professors, and training programs highlighting career pathways and support services—all focused on demystifying college for parents of freshman. The University of California, Irvine co-hosts parent retreats and overnight dorm stays, and California State University, Fullerton welcomes parents with bilingual orientations and campus tours, previewing college life before their children officially begin classes.
The Padres Promotores initiative represents equity in action in two ways. First, the Partnership has taken significant steps over the years to give parents more agency in creating educational opportunities for their children. Second, it has expanded educational opportunities for students, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college. We are grateful that the parents in our community gave us a chance to do better. Because of their hard work and good faith, a college degree in every Santa Ana home is an attainable goal for this generation of students.