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Breaking through barriers

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I am sitting with a group of women, most of them so close to tears that a box of tissues is brought to the table around which we sit.

Few of them speak enough English, and my Spanish is abysmal, to explain their bursts of emotion.

But I know.

They are happy.

“Orgulloso,” Patricia Rico, one of the women says, smiling, reaching for a tissue. Proud.

They are among the 11 women who today will don caps and gowns and graduate from Central New Mexico Community College with child development certificates of achievement, which are required for those who work in licensed child care facilities and preschools and as educational assistants.

It’s a considerable accomplishment for these women, most of whose formal education ended years ago in elementary school, many whose traditional Mexican culture does not emphasize the benefits of education for women.

One of the women in the group admits that her mother called her too dumb for school.

Another says her father believed that school for girls was a waste of time, that her place was at home taking care of her family. Still another says she lacked confidence to attempt anything outside the home.

“I had to prove it to myself,” Graciela González says as one of her fellow women translates. “And I did.”

The women applaud.

Members of the Manzano Mesa Preschool Parent Co-op play "itsy bitsy spider" with the kids. The members are, from left, Patricia Rico, María Valqui, Paulina Díaz and Ivonne González

Members of the Manzano Mesa Preschool Parent Co-op play “itsy bitsy spider” with the kids. The members are, from left, Patricia Rico, María Valqui, Paulina Díaz and Ivonne González. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Their success is a happy side benefit of a little-known program called the Albuquerque Bernalillo County, or ABC, Community School Partnership, a coalition of city and county government, Albuquerque Public Schools, United Way of Central New Mexico, the Albuquerque Business Education Compact and other business and individual sponsors. The program, established in 2007, is in 23 schools throughout APS, including Manzano Mesa Elementary School, where the 11 graduating women work.

The partnership’s goal is to help connect students and families with whatever their individual school needs to succeed.

“It’s very grass-roots,” says Deanna Creighton Cook, community school coordinator for the partnership at Manzano Mesa, one of the newest schools in the city.

The school serves a growing population in a Southeast Albuquerque district of new subdivisions, old mobile home parks and low-income transient housing. Of its 750 students, about 70 percent are minority and more than half receive free or reduced-price lunch.

Cook, who has been at the school since 2011, was instrumental in helping to create Homework Diner, a nationally lauded program through the partnership that provides free family dinner plus teachers and tutors to help students with their homework on Monday evenings.

After meeting with a number of parents, Cook says, she discovered that another concern in the community was a lack of affordable preschool and day care nearby. That was the germ for what became the Manzano Mesa Preschool Parent Co-op, in which parents volunteer their time. It’s the only program of its kind in the city, Cook says.

In 2012, the co-op was launched in a borrowed classroom with eight to 10 children and several mothers, including María Valqui, a parent and a former schoolteacher in her native Peru. Valqui, the only paid member of the co-op, acts as preschool coordinator, making sure shifts are covered.

Eventually, the co-op moved into its own portable building on campus. Today, the co-op has 18 preschool students.

That might have been good enough, but Cook was also looking toward the future.

“I was mindful of sustainability,” she says. “That means becoming a licensed preschool.”

And that meant at least some of the volunteer moms needed to be trained and accredited. Cook worked to track down grants and scholarships through the University of New Mexico and CNM. In addition, classes in English as a second language, GED training and others educational programs were implemented for the women.

Of those 14 women who started with the co-op, 11 are the ones graduating today. Besides Valqui, Rico and González, that includes Gabriela Ronquillo, Janeth Palacios, Rosalía Hernández, Liliana Montes, Nuvia Valenzuela, Lorenza Navarro, Paulina Díaz and Ivonne González.

Liliana Montes gets help with her graduation cap from Rosalía Hernández

Liliana Montes gets help with her graduation cap from Rosalía Hernández. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

But, Cook said, the training has become more than learning – it has been life-changing.

“I never, ever would have imagined this is where we would be,” Cook said. “These women have overcome language, cultural and generational barriers. Their children see their mothers’ accomplishment and know that college is also a possibility for them. It’s now an expectation.”

The women credit one another for making it this far. They register for classes together, do homework together. They celebrate birthdays, holidays, weddings, baby showers together.

“We are like a family,” Valqui says. “When things are up and things are down, we are here for each other.”

And so they will be today when they hold high their certificates – and their heads.

The tears come again; the tissue box comes around.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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