Every six weeks, men from the surrounding community stand at the doors of Manuel Jara Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas, greeting incoming students with a high five, an encouraging word and a new pencil. The men have all volunteered for this special duty, and Marta Plata, the principal at Manuel Jara, says the high FIVEs they hand out stand for: Fathers Imparting Value in Education.
On these days, the boys wear neckties and girls are adorned with a string of plastic pearls. If the kids misbehave, they have to relinquish their tie or their pearls. It's a message to the child and to "the whole world" that the children have lost their respect, says Plata, who points out that not one child has ever had to turn in his or her adornments as a result of poor behavior.
In word and in action
Plata has a heart for children and a desire to lead, to inspire and to remind them of their value.
"I tell the students at every assembly that I love them," she says, "that every adult in the building works for them, and that they are valued and important."
Plata says that if her students need her, she will stop whatever she's doing to listen. She treats her students this way because she wants to follow God's example for how He loves all His children.
"I have so much confidence that if I cry out 'Abba,' He will stop what He's doing in the universe to come see about me" Plata says. "Not because I'm good, but because He is good. I want this confidence for them and for everybody."
Her office door is always open, and she installed a special mailbox just for students to bring up what they like and dislike about their school. Plata takes the comments seriously, and wants her students to be equipped with the tools they need to succeed. And she's willing to chase one down if it means he will get the attention he needs.
Every student matters
"One day two years ago, I was at dismissal when I heard a fifth grade boy tell his friend, 'Watch out for Plata, cause I'm going to skip out of tutoring,' " she says. "I don't know what came over me. I literally chased him 10 blocks until he turned down an alley and [hid in] a shed. I was so angry!"
Plata rang his mother's doorbell and pointed out that her son had skipped tutoring and was hiding in a shed. The mother got her son from his hiding place and – to Plata's great surprise – the mom was upset with the principal and not with her son. Plata was speechless. After all, she had worked hard to help these kids, coming up with additional resources to pay for after-school tutors. She could not understand this mother's attitude.
That night Plata prayed, and she says the Lord gave her peace. When the boy's mother showed up at school the next day with her son, Plata welcomed them into her office. The mom was surprised at Plata's relaxed demeanor: "Well, you sure are calm and not as hot as you were when you came to my home."
Plata told the mother she was right, and that she had prayed about her attitude the night before. "I realized that I had not birthed your son," Plata said. She explained that she was paying tutors to help this mom's son, as well as the other students, but it was a program with plenty of children on a waiting list, so he didn't have to continue.
The boy's mother recognized the benefit and pressed her son for cooperation. After the incident, every time Plata saw the student, he had a book in his hand and was reading just about everywhere he went – simply because he wanted to. Plata says that same student proceeded to win Texas Christian University's reading challenge for elementary students in the Fort Worth area. "I consider every happy, successful child a proud accomplishment," Plata says.
God-inspired program for parents
It was this experience, and her time spent in prayer on the matter, that inspired Plata to look for a program to help parents support their children's education. Looking for a community partner, she contacted five churches in the surrounding neighborhood. When Pastor Rafael Berlanga from nearby Primera Baptist Church came to Manuel Jara for a visit, Plata shared her idea for what she called 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 Leadership Conference. The training featured a curriculum from Focus on the Family called Raising Highly Capable Kids (RHCK). Berlanga brought a copy of the RHCK workbook to Plata, and she loved it. "It was as if someone looked into my heart and wrote it just for me," Plata says.
That's when Parent University was born.
The program helps build strong families by providing parents with the tools and skills to raise healthy, caring and responsible kids, while still maintaining a dignity and respect for their individual parenting and home management traditions. Parent University also empowers them to become the chief advocates for their children.
Since Plata is at the helm at a public school, she and Berlanga chose a curriculum that is structured around solid, but not religious, core values. Seeking God in this endeavor was no different than her approach as a young girl in seeking His guidance and His purpose for her future.
Early beginnings in education
Plata knew at age 14 that she wanted to be a positive influence in children's lives. That's when she says God gave her both the vision for how she could serve Him, as well as the courage she needed to approach a day care center in search of employment. God opened the door for her to work there – initially as a janitor, then as a helper in the kitchen. By the time she was a senior in high school, she was keeping the books and closing the business at night.
After completing her education, Plata continued her work with children as a day care director. She then moved into a teaching career, which included roles such as bilingual specialist, specialist in curriculum, new teacher induction and early childhood education. Later she became an assistant principal and eventually principal of Manuel Jara. In 2011, she received the Woman of Distinction Award from Altrusa International.
Family has the power to embolden
She's inspired by her students, but Plata's greatest support comes from God and from her family. Married 36 years now, Plata and her husband, Jesse, have weathered many ups and downs. But she credits her husband, and the friend she has in him, to her faith. "I learned how to have a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ from him and his example."
Marta met Jesse when she was in the 5th grade. She lived in a neighborhood where everyone was poor, where her family raised chickens and sold the eggs in a neighborhood store. Her parents often traded the eggs for their groceries. The family that owned that little store looked out for her family even though the owners had seven kids of their own. Plata says, "The older boy always erased some of our charges so that the eggs would cover the bill."
Plata's husband – who was that boy from the neighborhood store – has always shown Plata God's love and acceptance, ever since they were kids. "Having this rich heritage," she says, "helped me always feel like I had more than enough money, love and the security that comes from knowing that our happiness comes from investing in something greater than yourself."
Today, Marta and Jesse have one grown son who is married with two girls of his own.
Working for the kingdom
Her investment in children continues to pay dividends. Plata's message to kids is that they have decisions to make every day. Even when they don't "decide," they are still making a decision. "We all have a chance every day. If we wake up, then there is still work to do for the kingdom."
She encourages kids not to settle. Dream big. She believes we all have ideas that only we can birth. "We serve the Author of creativity, so if you have a need, pray – and he will give you a [God-inspired] 'GOoD idea.' "
Focus on the Family is celebrating Hispanic heritage month with our friends at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. Be sure to visit the NHCLC's Healthy Families page.