This is what ‘all’ looks like

Photo by Luis Murillo Alamosa School District held registration drives at different neighborhoods in Alamosa this week. The final one was at Shooting Stars Cultural and Leadership Center.

ALAMOSA — Talaya and Bernie Lopez stand in a room at Shooting Stars Cultural and Leadership Center on the south side of Alamosa, smiling as they watch a hairstylist give their son, Lucas, a haircut. The room, part of Alamosa School District’s Family Center located at the center, is packed with other families, some watching their kids get a haircut while others wait their turn. It’s more than worth the wait. The haircuts are free.

Lucas, who is entering the sixth grade, realizes he’s about to have his photo taken and looks down at the floor, embarrassed by the attention.

“Lucas,” Talaya calls out, laughing. “Smile!” He does — a little. He can’t help it. The hairstylist, one of three donating their time, smiles, too, but keeps working. There are a lot of people waiting for his services.

Although the atmosphere is festive, this isn’t a fair or some holiday festival. Even though, inside the building, some of the 20 service organizations involved are giving out information and explaining services, and, outside, at the adjacent Historic Zapata Park, City Councilors Michael Carson and Jan Vigil are grilling and serving hot dogs, it isn’t a city-sponsored event, either.

It’s the last night of a three-night event that went to a different neighborhood each night, registering students for school. The registration drive was born from the community and involved Five Star Riders Car Club, La Sociedad Protección Mutua de Trabajadores Unidos (S.P.M.D.T.U.) and SLV AHEC in partnership with Shooting Stars and the school district. There was a contribution in memory of Jude Mason, a former resident of Alamosa who worked for the Colorado Education Association and devoted his life to the education of children. Mason’s widow recently sold their house and Lisa Lucero, a realtor and one of the event organizers, donated her commission to the event in honor of Mason’s legacy living on.

The goal of this collaboration was simple: to reach out to students and families who have historically encountered challenges in interacting with the school district.

It’s the first time that something like this has been done in Alamosa.

Prior to this year, families could only register their students online. That’s a problem for families who don’t have access to the internet.

The forms were also in English, a problem for families who speak Spanish or, if they’re originally from Guatemala, Q’ anjob’al. And, even for those who may have internet access and are proficient in English, school registration is a complicated process starting with the basic steps of just getting a password.

The people who pulled the event together hoped that “taking registration on the road” would be helpful. The overwhelming response from hundreds of families was more than even the most optimistic hoped for.

It’s estimated that, by the end of the three days, about 500 students — a quarter of students attending ASD — were registered. Jamie Madigan, Director of ASD’s Multi-tiered Support Systems and key organizer, says 400 backpacks with supplies were provided. Lucero says about 500 hot dogs were served. And the lines to the ice cream truck serving snow cones and, of course, haircuts, were long all night.

“This is really nice,” says Talaya when asked what she thought of the event. “They even gave out library cards. Library cards! Lucas was like ‘oh, mom, they just have books there’ and I said, no, the library has so much more than just books! Lucas really likes art. I think he’s going to like going there.”

Tri-lingual translators Maricela Lucas and Eulalia Pablo, who were among those who volunteered to translate for families in getting their kids registered for school online, said the process took anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes.

“We worked non-stop at Tierra Nueva,” Lucas says, referring to the apartment complex where they were on the first night of the drive. “They were lined up and we just worked with them one after another. We registered I think about 100 students.”

It’s estimated another 80 were registered at Century Mobile Home Park. The line at Shooting Stars went out the door and down the block.

Despite the time and energy involved, both Pablo and Lucas had high praise for the events.

“You can reach more people and do it better when it’s face to face,” Lucas says. “It’s the best way for connecting with families and it really helps them understand how things work. Like, I needed to explain to one mom that, when the district loans their family an iPad or laptop, they’ll have to pay the district back if anything happens to the equipment. She really thought about that for a few minutes.”

The mother ended up taking the equipment.

“It was important for her to know that first,” Lucas says.

Others didn’t understand how the free lunch program worked, Pablo says.

When asked how they think people registered before if they don’t have internet and may not speak English, Lucas, who has a 3-year-old daughter not yet in school, just shook her head. “I don’t know.”

Pablo, who is becoming a certified translator for SLV Health and has four children in school already, just shrugged slightly and smiled.

“It’s always so stressful for people at this time of year because it’s hard to remember the computer and sometimes the passwords don’t work,” says Jamie Dominguez, founder of Shooting Stars. “So, for us to show up with the school district and to sit down in a parking lot at Mobile Century or here at the park is huge. This way, it’s all done. The kids are already scared about going to school. This way, all they have to do on the first day is just…go to school.”

In addition to registering for school, families also had the chance to register their kids for the Boys and Girls Club, for both the summer program and the Friday programming the Club has contracted with the district to provide. Given that there are only 300 slots available for Friday programming, access to registration is key.

It's so important to “come to (the families),” Dominguez says. “They’re so happy to see the school district in their neighborhood — just to see them in a different space and for the kids to play tag and eat a hot dog together.”

Dominguez says they accomplished what needed to be accomplished.

“We needed to make them feel comfortable about something that stressed them out. We needed to bring the community together and we did it in a culturally relevant way. So, that’s success. It doesn’t happen like this all the time, but if we continue doing it, it’s going to get more comfortable,” Dominguez says.

A community brought together was one of the most obvious and powerful aspects of the event at Shooting Stars and Zapata Park, and it was experienced by all.

“It’s so great to see people coming together,” says City Councilor Carson. “We need to do things like this more often – make it fun and fill those gaps that exist.”

“The outpouring of support that ASD received through community partners was overwhelming and certainly heartwarming,” says Diana Jones, Superintendent of ASD. “Once the announcement was made, people began contacting us to offer help. I cannot express how gratifying it was to see the students leaving with a sense of pride after receiving a new haircut.  We obviously could not have provided our families the extra activities and opportunities without our community partners.”    

Community and family engagement is also a key part of the ASD’s Strategic Plan, formed with strong input from families.

“The event at the Family Center and events the previous days exceeded our expectations but not our hopes and dreams for what we can do as a community,” says Assistant Superintendent Luis Murillo. “We have the numbers to prove that our efforts were successful, but what is more challenging to quantify are all the smiles, hugs, words of gratitude, and the hope expressed in the eyes of parents, students, and community members. We want our actions to continue to send the message that ASD is a school district for ALL, and that under our leadership, we will continue to work to undo some of the wrongs previously committed by the school system.”

It should be noted that the ASD Board of Education canceled their board meeting that night in recognition of the event with Board Chair Heidi Richardson and member Gloria Solis showing up and giving a hand.

As children played in the park while parents chatted and looked on, the history that preceded Thursday night was also present. Zapata Park was the former location of the segregated school where children with Spanish surnames were forced to attend, no matter where they lived or their native speaker proficiency in English.

In 1910, a parent of Miguel Maestas had to take the school district to court in order for his 10 year old son to be allowed to attend the “American School”, which was a short distance from his house, instead of the “Mexican School” that was much further away and required the boy to cross dangerous railroad tracks every morning and afternoon.

“As I sat in Zapata Park, I watched with no small amount of pride as hundreds of parents and children took part in an event whose focus was education,” says Martin Gonzales, former district judge for the San Luis Valley and head of the Maestas Committee that has worked diligently to emphasize and educate others on the cultural and historic importance of the landmark case.

“Given that it happened at the site of the ‘Mexican school’, it was like a phoenix arising from the past to continue the struggle to improve our local schools and the struggle for equal opportunity through education.

“Francisco Maestas, in whose name the Maestas case was filed and won over 110 years ago, would have been proud, I think. I was.”

“We can see our history now,” Dominguez says. “We can see each other now.”

Organizers wish to thank Courtney Vigil (Family Engagement Co-ordinator, ASD), Jeremy Silva, Alamosa County Public Health, Center for Restorative Programs, INEP nutrition programs, Wraparound Services, Coyote’s Barber Shop, Angela Jaramillo at All Family Hair Care, Alamosa School District Nutrition Department and Technology Department, Efrem Ortiz, Monique Sigarst Johnson with Colorado Health Foundation and Veronica Cadias.