Chaos ensues every day at dismissal time. That's when the final bell rings and hundreds of young students at Manuel Jara Elementary School pour out of their classrooms and head for home. And that's when Principal Marta Plata overheard a fifth-grade boy tell a friend: "Watch out for Plata, 'cause I'm going to skip out of tutoring."
Principal Plata still isn't sure what came over her that day, but she chased after the student for 10 blocks, until he turned down an alley and into a shed. She rang his mother's doorbell and pointed out that her son had skipped his after-school reading lesson and was now in hiding.
"To my great surprise, the mother was mad at me and not at him," Plata says.
Plata was dumbstruck. "All I could think to say was, ‘Come see me in the morning.' "
Plata struggled to understand the parent's attitude.
That night, she bowed her head in prayer.
When the boy's mother showed up the next day with her son, Plata welcomed them into her office. "She was surprised at my demeanor and commented: ‘Well, you sure are calm and not as hot as you were when you came to my home.' "
Plata told the woman that she was right, that she had prayed about the situation and realized that she was not the boy's mother. Plata then informed this parent that her fifth-grader could barely read; that with a second-grade reading level he would not make it in middle school and certainly not to college. Plata also pointed out that if the boy didn't want tutoring, the after-school program had plenty of others on the waiting list.
"After that," she says, "every time we saw [that student], he had a book in his hand and was reading everywhere — just because he wanted to. That year he won Texas Christian University's reading challenge."
What happened to alter the course of this student's life? Plata wanted to understand, so once again she bowed her head. That's when she realized that despite all her hard work and all the efforts of her teachers and tutors, nothing really changed until a parent made it her business to make sure her child succeeded.
Begin with prayer
Plata prayed some more, and she got an idea. What if she could create a way to help parents support their children's education? Needing the assistance of a community partner, she contacted five churches in the surrounding neighborhoods of Fort Worth, Texas.
She got one response — from Pastor Rafael Berlanga of nearby Primera Baptist Church. When Pastor Berlanga came to Manuel Jara for a visit, Plata shared her idea for a "Parent University."
There was just one problem: She didn't have a curriculum. Berlanga solved that issue a few months later when he attended training sponsored by the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and Focus on the Family. The session featured a Focus curriculum called Raising Highly Capable Kids (RHCK).
RHCK empowers families for success by providing parents with tools and skills to raise healthy, caring and responsible children. Since Manuel Jara is a public school, Berlanga found just what they needed: a curriculum that is not religious, but based on proven developmental assets that help kids succeed.
Berlanga brought a copy of RHCK to Plata, who was, in her words, mesmerized. "It was as if someone looked into my heart and wrote it just for me."
A program for parents
Parent University launched in early 2014. Plata recruited 18 teachers plus Pastor Berlanga to help run the program, and Primera Baptist Church provided all the RHCK materials.
Most of Manuel Jara's students come from economically disadvantaged homes, where many parents don't speak English, fathers are often absent and single parents sometimes have to work two jobs. Plata was tireless in her encouragement, and when that first 13-week session ended in April 2014, the 29 parents who attended faithfully every Wednesday night were rewarded with a professional cap-and-gown photo and an "I Graduated Parent University" T-shirt.
"After the ceremony, the parents did not want the classes to end," Plata says. "They wanted to come back."
So they did. The 2015 graduation honored 41 parents — 25 first-timers who completed the original curriculum and 16 alumni who enrolled in a second-year course. (Last fall 85 Manuel Jara parents signed up for the program.)
As Raising Highly Capable Kids spreads to more schools in the U.S., Focus on the Family is also making training available in far-flung countries such as South Africa and Malaysia.
"Parent University/Raising Highly Capable Kids is a tremendous way for the church to go into the community — into a local school," Pastor Berlanga says, "and make a difference."