Of all the commencements taking place this graduation season, none may have been as obscure — or as indicative of the changing shape of public education — as a small ceremony on the front lawn of McKinley Elementary School, where 35 families gathered with children ages 3 and younger to celebrate their completion of the AVANCE curriculum.
AVANCE is an early childhood and parenting program aimed at lower-income Hispanic communities that began in San Antonio, Texas, but has now been operating in select sites around Santa Barbara County for two years. It is funded by a consortium of nonprofits that have pooled their resources into an initiative called THRIVE, its goal being to close the white-Latino achievement gap.
The principal of McKinley, Emilio Handall (who will become an assistant superintendent in July), first read about AVANCE in Whatever It Takes, a book about educational reformer Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. Handall raised the idea with Jon Clark, executive director of the James S. Bower Foundation, and before he knew it, the Santa Barbara school district had obtained grant money to send a contingency down to San Antonio to learn about the program.
The purpose of AVANCE is to offer parents the resources and skills that they can use to make sure their children are kindergarten-ready. Once a week, parents meet for a three-hour class where they construct a homemade toy and then learn how to help their children play with that toy in a cognitively-enriching manner. On a day in March, the parents sewed little aprons with three pockets that all had different types of closures — snap, button, zipper — to help kids practice their motor skills. During the class, an AVANCE instructor usually gives a PowerPoint presentation on physical, social, emotional, or cognitive development.
The unlikely AVANCE instructor at McKinley is Ruth Cardoso, a single mom and autodidact who never finished her geography degree at UCSB but can reference seminal scholarly research and discuss neuronal connections with the authority of an education PhD. One study found, she said, that the brains of rats raised without any stimulation weighed in at one ounce whereas their un-isolated counterparts grew nine-ounce brains. “What you put into that child in terms of reading and playing now, you’ll get out later,” she explained.
Cardoso grew up a migrant farm worker, working on a Texas ranch during the school year and harvesting sugar beets in the Upper Midwest during the summer. She won a scholarship to attend Moorhead State University in Minnesota but left when she married a man who lived in Santa Barbara and eventually took a job at the school district offices. She was so excited to become an AVANCE instructor that she went on unemployment for six months waiting for the position to open.
Although she is only in her second year, Cardoso commands her classroom like a pro. When her adult students are reticent to participate, she urges them on with sisterly patience. She covers their eyes and squeezes their cheeks as if they were infants, demonstrating to parents how to interact with their own kids. She hops like a bunny in front of the class to demonstrate a game of charades (sin palabras) before making the mothers take turns.
To reinforce the lessons, AVANCE staff conduct eight in-home visits with the participating parents to observe them with their children. During the March class, parents watched video of Luz María Garcon — who spoke at graduation — reading with her 2-year-old, Josué, who could sound out every letter in the alphabet and was on the brink of reading himself. The other moms looked on in awe while Cardoso praised her student, “¡Que bonito modelo!”
Maria Elena Calles, another AVANCE student, said that her 6-year-old could not count to 20 before preschool, but she expects that to change with her one-year-old. “Before, I would tell my daughter to bring that thing over there,” she said, “but now I tell her to get that bottle,” explaining how she pays attention to her daughter’s linguistic development.
“I trust her a lot,” Calles said of Cardoso who took pains to invite guest speakers and decorate McKinley’s auditorium for the big event, where the children of graduates wore homemade white gowns. If AVANCE works as well as its funders hope, there will be plenty more graduations for these children.