program implementation meets reality

by Hergit "Coco" Llenas


by Hergit Penzo Llenas
National Director of Latino Outreach
American Federation for Children

Over the last two years, I have heard talk of a phenomenon described as “the apathy of the low-income family” when it comes to the betterment of and involvement in their child’s education. This statement usually comes from individuals who have not had the opportunity to work with these kinds of families. But I have. In my experience, the problem is not apathy, but, in fact, it runs much deeper than that. Let me explain.

On September 2015, a few months after the Nevada legislation passed the Education Savings Account program (ESA), I met Nancy, a Mexican immigrant, mother of three well-mannered girls, and a stay-at-home mom whose husband works in landscaping. 

On that warm afternoon in September, I was manning my first informational booth at an event in Las Vegas when Nancy approached my table. We talked about the ESA, a new and revolutionary program, which would allow her to have access to state funds to pay for ANY(!) educational choices she deemed suitable for her three girls: private school, home based education, virtual academies, online learning, tutoring, even therapies. We also discussed the legal challenges that programs like this had faced in many states. Afterwards, I gave her some flyers in Spanish and my business card. Nancy told me she was willing to take her chances and give it a try.

A few days later, she contacted me:

 –Coco, ¿por favor, me podrías ayudar a llenar los papeles de la ESA? (could you, please, help me fill out the ESA application?), she asked. Mi inglés es limitado y no quiero cometer un error (My English is limited, and I do not want to make a mistake.)

-¡Claro!, con mucho gusto (Of course! It would be my pleasure.), I answered, super excited to be able to assist my first client.

We agreed that we would meet at her house the next day at 9 am.

Since I was expected to inform families about the application process, I had previously surfed the Nevada Treasurer’s website to learn how to navigate the portal. It took me about 20-25 minutes to complete the ESA application process. Based on this practice run, I estimated that helping Nancy with the applications of her two school-aged girls would not take longer than an hour.

I was wrong. It took us almost the entire morning!

Little did I know that: 1. Although Nancy owned a computer, she was not computer literate. 2. The scanner and her desk top could not “talk to each other” given that she lost the connecting cable, and the device was not Wi-Fi ready. 3. The cable-less scanner would ONLY allow us to save the scanned documents on a flash drive, which Nancy did not have nor had she ever heard of such a thing. After looking for the cable for a while, and once we figured out that we could not save the documents, we headed to the nearest Office Depot to purchase a flash drive. The drive between the store and Nancy’s house was 20 minutes each way. It was close to 11 am when we made it back to her house.
We then started to fill out the application online. On a few occasions, we were “dropped” from the website, and had to start all over again. Long story short, when we finally completed the two applications, it was almost noon. A process that took me 20 minutes to complete at home ended up being a three-hour ordeal for her and a four-hour task for me (adding the travel time back and forth from my house to hers).

Let’s imagine if Nancy would’ve had to figure this process out by herself. Chances are that it would have taken even longer or she would have given up before finishing. Furthermore, even though the language was a limiting factor, her lack of computer skills was the real problem. For many families that I’ve come in contact with, not having a computer and Wi-Fi at home made matters worse.

Thankfully, we eventually started creating workshops in facilities around the state that were equipped with computers, Wi-Fi, volunteers and scanners to assist applicants with the application process. Working families showed up in big numbers prepared and enthusiastic about making a difference in their children’s education.

Apathy was never the issue and rarely is for parents who love their children.  Access to the knowledge to navigate the system, lack of resources, disinformation, language limitations, feeling intimidated by paperwork and forms, among many other factors are usually what deters parents from participating. In our fight to ensure that parents across this country are given the right to choose how their child is educated, let’s keep this in mind before tagging certain groups with labels such as apathetic.