Giving Thought: Two-generation approach builds stronger community outcomes
Children do not develop in a vacuum. In recent years, there have been significant increases in supporting early childhood education to improve educational and career outcomes. Still, research suggests that two-generational approaches are encouraged for long term community impact.
According to the Aspen Institute, two-generational programs fall along a continuum ranging from child-focused to parent-focused, with “whole family” approaches in the middle. These approaches intentionally support family well-being by working with children and adults in their lives simultaneously. Two-generational approaches cultivate educational and economic success by centering the whole family, recognizing it as a unit.
Valley Settlement, a local nonprofit, was founded in 2011 to address the needs of the region’s fast-growing, low-wage immigrant community. Their work began by conducting over 300 one-on-one conversations with the valley’s most vulnerable families. These conversations helped to inform their original program offerings.
The parent mentor program was one of the first programs to emerge from the initial conversations and remains a keystone of the organization. Each year, parent mentors dedicate over 10,000 volunteer hours in Roaring Fork School District elementary schools.
These Spanish-speaking volunteers support teachers and students in the classroom. For newly-arrived students who are learning to navigate new cultures with language barriers, these volunteers act as an invaluable bridge between students, parents, and educators.
The benefits of this program are numerous and layered. A number of volunteers have gone on to become full-time employees in the school district in various capacities. Surveys have shown that members of the Latino community often feel isolated, which leads to mental-health struggles, but, through volunteering, they have found a place in the community.
“Parent mentors not only provide extra support for students in our classrooms and act as a role model for children — they also bring what they learn about the school system and community back to their family and friends, becoming leaders both in the schools and in the larger community,” according to Sally Boughton, development and communications director at Valley Settlement.
Students whose parents serve as parent mentors also feel a sense of pride in having their parents in the schools. Some even refer to their parents as teachers, allowing them to feel more connected to education.
During the pandemic, education was shifted from the classroom to the digital world. Valley Settlement, who offers adult learning programs through its Lifelong Learning program, learned that many parents were not able to support their children with their learning due to a lack of computer-literacy skills, so they expanded offerings to include instruction around virtual meeting tools and collaboration systems. This program enables parents to engage with their students’ learning; when parents are engaged in education, student outcomes improve.
The Lifelong Learning program also offers English, Spanish literacy, and math courses. In addition, the program connects students with Colorado Mountain College to support them in pursuing their GED, higher education, and professional certifications. In an effort to remove barriers to access, childcare services are offered to allow parents the opportunity to pursue their education.
Children of parents enrolled in Lifelong Learning programs see their parents working on homework, instilling education as a family value. Parents pursuing their own education are shown to be more invested in their children’s education long term.
These programs offer parents opportunities to improve their economic positioning while children are young. Studies show the longer children live in poverty the less likely they are to break the cycle for themselves.
“When children see their parents going to class and volunteering in schools, they experience a great sense of pride in their parents’ personal accomplishments and contributions to the community. This sense of pride in turn becomes a motivating force for children to keep learning with their families and classmates. At Valley Settlement, success is celebrated by the whole family, with grandparents and cousins attending graduations for little ones and adults, alike, “ According to Marlin Gonzalez, adult focused programs manager at Valley Settlement.
“We want our participants to fly,” says Gonzalez, speaking to the goal of supporting immigrant children and families by advancing opportunities and reducing barriers to thriving by supporting their independence and building community.
While supporting children is critical for community growth, we must also remember the center of most of their lives is the family unit. When a family is recognized as an ecosystem, children, and families are better able to break generational cycles of poverty and thrive.
Allison Alexander is the director of strategic partnerships and communications for the Aspen Community Foundation, which with the support of its donors, works with nonprofits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.