Getting ready to read: ACE's Parent Advocates for Literacy are making a difference for prekindergarteners

Posted on December 18, 2009

“She knows the letter m. She knows how to write it—she just can’t stop writing it. She does mmmmmm. But she knows that that letter is in her name.”


“Well, she’s on the right track.”

“I have two children who already know how to read. One of them acts up in class a lot—he gets restless and antsy. And I realized it’s probably because he’s bored.”

“Well, why don’t you ask that student to come stand beside you and read the rules to the other children?”

pals working together at Sanchez

PALs Betzaida Zapata, Myrna Perez, Julia Martinez, Maria Verdin, and Terry Ligues discuss a reading lesson for the prekindergarten children they tutor at Sanchez Elementary School.

These snippets of conversation swirl up from a group of women crowded around a small table in a cheerful, cluttered resource room at Sanchez Elementary School in Austin, Texas. All the women are involved with Parent Advocates for Literacy (PALs), which is part of the Dana Center’s ACE program (A Community for Education, formerly ACEE, AmeriCorps for Community Engagement and Education).

Eight of these women are parent advocates for literacy, and the other two—Sheryl Prater and Carolina Guajardo—are the ACE staff members who manage the PALs program. All ten are utterly engrossed in the surprisingly complicated business of preparing prekindergarten students to read and write.

Learning to read and write involves more than simply identifying letters and words. Before children can begin to make meaning from a bunch of squiggles on a piece of paper, they have to develop their eye muscles, to be able to track symbols across a page. Before they can begin making their own squiggles on a piece of paper, they have to develop the muscles in their fingers and hands, to be able to hold and control a pencil. Then they have to figure out how to make their brain work together with their eye and finger muscles.

The women at the table appreciate the difficulty of learning to read. As Maria Verdin, a second-year PAL at Sanchez, put it, “I used to think teachers didn’t do all that much, but now I know how much teachers really work—they do a lot.”

Although learning to read poses a challenge for all children, many already have the necessary brain and muscle development in place when they start school. But children from low-income families whose parents often have little education—the children who attend the Austin Independent School District’s prekindergarten program—are less likely to have reached these developmental milestones. As ACE director Mary Ellen Isaacs explains, “At the ripe old age of four, many of the children are already 18 months behind.”

This is where ACE and the PALs tutors step in.

Established in 1994, ACE is an AmeriCorps program dedicated to ensuring that all children develop a strong foundation in literacy skills during their first years in school. To this end, ACE hires around 120 full- and part-time AmeriCorps members each year and trains them to work with students in prekindergarten through first grade.

The full-time ACE members work with kindergarteners and first-graders at Allison, Andrews, Linder, and Sanchez elementary schools. The majority of ACE’s part-time members work with prekindergarteners at the Lucy Read Pre-Kindergarten Demonstration School.

Most ACE members are young adults who are in college or have just graduated, and they serve as important role models for the children they tutor. These members provide not only youthful energy and idealism but also a daily reminder that graduating from high school and going on to college are achievable goals.

But ACE staff and the elementary school teachers and leaders they partner with knew that children would also benefit from having parents from their own communities as tutors, and they wanted to provide more prekindergarten tutoring. Thus the first incarnation of PALs was born at Sanchez Elementary School in 1997.

At that time, ACE provided tutoring for kindergartners and first-graders at Sanchez. Carol McPherson, a reading specialist at the school, wanted to do more for the prekindergarten students, so she asked ACE to partner with her to prepare Sanchez parents to tutor prekindergarteners. The PALs program has continued at Sanchez ever since.

Betzaida Zapata

Betzaida Zapata, a PAL at Sanchez, observes that "the training we get is really good. It's the same training education students at UT get, but it's more practical, because we are in the classroom with the students every day."

ACE stayed involved with the PALs program for most of the following decade, but it wasn’t until the 2007–2008 school year that all PALs tutors became AmeriCorps members and ACE assumed full responsibility for recruiting, hiring, training, and supporting the PALs. As ACE members, PALs tutors receive a stipend, health insurance, and, for each year of service, a grant to pursue further education. (For 2009, the grant totals $2,362.50.) They also take part in the intensive research-based literacy training that all ACE members receive.

The first year that ACE managed the program, five PALs worked with Sanchez’s five prekindergarten classes. The following year, all five PALs returned for a second year of service, and two new PALs joined them.

This incarnation of the PALs program at Sanchez was so successful that ACE decided to expand it. ACE director Mary Ellen Isaacs sought and received funding for the expansion from ACE supporters the RGK Foundation, the Topfer Family Foundation, the Silverton Foundation, and the Genevieve and Ward Orsinger Foundation.

For the current school year, ACE hired a total of 26 PALs and extended the program to Allison and Linder. Without the PALs program, Allison, Linder, and Sanchez would not be able to offer tutoring for their prekindergarten students.

PALs tend to be a little older than the average ACE member, and most have children of their own. Many PALs speak Spanish and English and live in the same neighborhoods as the children they tutor. All PALs share a commitment to helping young children learn, and most bring to their work a deep familiarity with the communities these children come from.This familiarity makes it easier for PALs to connect with their young charges and, perhaps even more important, with the children’s parents.

PALs also usually have more experience than the average ACE tutor at keeping rambunctious four-year-olds in order. As Maria Verdin, mother of five, explains, “If my class gets too wild, I don’t panic. I can stay calm, and I know how to bring the kids back in line.”

Pals in training session at Terrazas Library.

PALs training specialist Carolina Guajardo (standing) and PALs Veronica Cervantes, Delia Esquivel, Maria Verdin, Terry Ligues, and Eva Vasquez go over lesson plans at Austin's Terrazas Library. Parents, notes Betzaida Zapata, “really know how to plan lessons and activities because they know what to expect [from the children]. This can be really helpful to the teachers who don’t have kids.”

Mary Ellen and other ACE staff members knew that the PALs program would benefit the students, teachers, and schools—it provides significant instructional support to teachers (who have up to 22 four-year-olds in their classrooms), and it adds value, in the form of additional instruction time, to the prekindergarten day. ACE staff also predicted that the PALs tutors would gain important job skills and education.

What no one quite predicted, and what is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this program, is how much the PALs have gained above and beyond job skills and education. Serving as a PAL has proved to be a transformative experience.

This was certainly the case for Isabel Valadez, one of the first PALs. Isabel tutored at Sanchez from 1998 to 2000. During that time, she got her Texas GED (General Educational Development) certificate. When her service as a PAL concluded, she used the experience she had gained to get a job as a teaching assistant in the Austin Independent School District.

With a good job and health benefits, Isabel, a single mom, was able to provide for her four children in a way she hadn’t before. All her children graduated from high school, and the two youngest went on to college.

Today Isabel still works as a teaching assistant in AISD and attends Austin Community College part time, with the long-term goal of getting certified to teach prekindergarten.

“It did change my life,” she says of her PALs experience. “I went to school, now I’m in college, and I have a better job. I never would’ve thought of doing all this before the PALs program.”

Isabel’s only regret is that her children were already out of elementary school when she began working as a PAL. If they had been younger, she says, “all the training I got, I would have used that with my own children.”

But Isabel’s service as a PAL obviously made an impression on her children. Two of her sons became part-time ACE tutors themselves when they were in college.

Maria Verdin

Maria Verdin

There’s a good chance that Maria Verdin's children will one day become ACE tutors, too. Maria is serving her second year as a PAL at Sanchez, which her three youngest children attend.

Maria’s fifth-grader was skeptical when his mom first announced she was going to tutor students at his school. And Maria had some doubts, too—she wasn’t sure she knew enough to teach a whole group of children. But a strong desire to be better able to help her children with their schoolwork convinced Maria to take the plunge, and soon she was working with a whole class of children and providing one-on-one tutoring for six of them.

She was surprised by how hard it was, and at first she blamed herself when her students didn’t make immediate progress. But with time and training and practice, Maria gained confidence and began to see her students blossom. Now, she says, “I know what to do.”

Recently her skeptical fifth-grader looked at her and said, “Mom, you really are a teacher.” At that point, Maria realized what a difference the PALs program has made—not only for the children she tutors, but for herself and her family.

“I know how to work with my own kids now,” she says. “Before, I wouldn’t always understand the homework, but now I can do it. I don’t get as stressed out as I used to.”

Maria is also teaching what she’s learning in the PALs program to her older children so they can help their younger siblings become better readers and writers. “It feels good to help out,” she tells them, and although they may not admit it, Maria is pretty sure they agree.

Working with PALs “has raised my self-esteem very high,” Maria says. Her children really want her to go back to school, and she wants to show them that “even though I’m as old as I am, and have my family, I can still do it.”

The support PALs offer can make a huge difference to prekindergarteners. In the four months she has served as a PAL, Betzaida Zapata has been most struck by how much a child’s experience at school can positively influence that child’s development. “The work we’re doing can really impact the lives of the kids . . . how you encourage them, how you help them study, how you help their parents work with them at home. It builds their foundation.”

This work is more important than ever. According to ACE director Mary Ellen Isaacs, children between 0 and 5 years of age comprise the fastest-growing age group in Austin, and most of these children come from low-income families and tend to be behind in developing preliteracy skills. "Austin," Mary Ellen fears, “is facing a crisis in early education.” Helping prekindergarteners catch up is therefore critical not only to their own futures, but to Austin’s future as well.

Pals in training session at Terrazas Library

PALs Betzaida Zapata, Alfonso Sifuentes, Yolanda Ojeda, and PALs program manager Sheryl Prater demonstrate a Halloween-themed reading lesson at a training session at Terrazas Library.

The beauty of the PALs program is that it contributes to Austin’s future and its present. The adults who serve as PALs emerge from the program empowered, with more and better skills, solid work experience, money to pursue further education, and increased self-confidence. In short, they are in a better position to make a positive contribution to their community.

Until recently, the ACE program was known as ACEE, AmeriCorps for Community Engagement and Education. The name changed partly to create a “phonetically correct” acronym, but also to better express what ACE—A Community for Education—is all about: involving the whole community (students, teachers, parents, PALs, principals, AmeriCorps members, volunteers, community leaders) in educating our children, and in turn using education to build community.

The PALs program is crucial to ACE’s mission—the work parents do with prekindergarteners radiates out into the whole Austin community, generating positive results wherever it goes. Isabel, when asked what advice she would give to a new PAL, captured the essence of the PAL program:

“A lot of good things are going to happen—for you, for your family, and for the students you tutor.”

written by Sarah Searcy, staff editor

edited by Amy Dolejs and Rachel Jenkins, staff editors

layout and design by Amy Dolejs, webmaster

photos by Phil Swann, designer, and Sarah Searcy