Published March 23, 2021 at 3:36pm.
Story by Mary Martin. Photos by Stephanie Drenka.
Growing up in Mission, Texas, Olga Martinez Hickman had a unique advantage over her siblings. She went to preschool. The youngest in her family, Olga needed a safe daycare as her mom headed back to work; a local Head Start program was the perfect solution. “My mom sent me to Head Start for a childcare option, not because she knew it would matter for education,” Olga says.
But it did matter for her education, and it mattered for the education of her community. Several decades later, while earning her doctorate in educational leadership, research, and policy, Olga began her career as an analyst at the University of Texas at Austin, studying early literacy from the teacher and the parent perspective. Using her young daughter as her very own case study, Olga saw firsthand the impact that intentional exposure to literacy programming can have on a young child.
Olga later stepped into a director role with Read Fort Worth, and then in 2018 accepted the executive director position at Bachman Lake Together. “Bachman Lake Together is truly my work coming full circle,” Olga says. “When I started working on my Ph.D. and my dissertation about what Latino parents experience in white schools, it was a time for me to reflect, and help disprove what I’d heard about Latino parents.”
The generalized assumption that Latino parents don’t want to support their children because they aren’t present at school activities, or don’t help their children with school work, is one that Olga faces on a regular basis. “What we hear from parents is that they don’t go to the school because there is not a welcome environment for them. Their Spanish is too much. They don’t help their students in the traditional way because they don’t know how,” Olga says. “And we know, especially because of COVID-19, a parent often chooses between food on the table or buying a book.” Olga, and her team at Bachman Lake Together, are working to create relationships and build trust that can scale the walls of assumption, and also provide solutions that work for Latino parents. “The parents have told us, ‘we came here for a better life, and we want it for our children.’”
Focused on the first five years of a child’s life, Bachman Lake Together brings together local partners at its family center. Lumin Education provides early childhood education programs, while nonprofit organizations like Avance, The Concilio, and Catholic Charities provide strategic collaboration to meet the changing needs of the community.
As the realities of COVID-19 began to surface in the Bachman Lake neighborhoods, Olga and leaders from across partner organizations shifted from an in-person education strategy to ensuring that families had the tools they needed for virtual school, as well as practical needs like food, diapers, and gift cards. “We switched to more of a direct service provider, and our funders and board members supported us,” Olga says. “Bachman Lake Together received funding from a mayor’s grant and we were able to support families with mortgage or rent payments, as well as utilities.”
This direct relief work in response to the pandemic continues to build on the trust that Olga and her team have established with parents and students. As many families continue to face internet issues, Olga is finding creative solutions to ensure learning still happens. “A family may live in an apartment complex where everyone in the complex is using the internet and it goes in and out. Or a child may have internet access via phone, but not on a computer. We have to think about how we address the digital divide, especially for an organization like Bachman Lake Together that is committed to inclusiveness. We are going to make sure our families have what they need.” That has looked like working with Dallas ISD, Uplift, and the City of Dallas public library system to provide laptops and hotspots, or even making print-outs available to parents for pick-up at the family center.
After COVID-19 is no longer a priority, Bachman Lake Together is still committed to the work of deep collaboration, whether that happens virtually or face-to-face. During a recent board meeting, Olga asked local parents how Bachman Lake Together supported them in the past year. “We heard from parents that they had been alone and isolated, stepping in as their family’s teacher, but Bachman Lake Together was also their family. They were thankful we continued our programs virtually,” Olga says. “Some of our programming will remain virtual into the future as we look at the needs of our parents.”
The Bachman Lake Together model prioritizes parents at every level of decision-making, from serving on the board of directors to chairing steering committees and working groups. “When parents are involved in the leadership space, they are able to talk to us about their concerns,” Olga says. “And their leadership here prepares them to take on leadership roles in other areas like PTA and district-level advocacy so they can hold people accountable.”
“I tell the moms all the time, ‘you are here advocating for something better, for your student and for your community,” says Olga. “These moms aren’t strangers to the hard work. They walk the streets for pre-k enrollment. They receive training to help talk to their neighbors about pre-k, even in the new digital space.” And for Olga, this communication is personal as she wonders how much more her mom could have done with her siblings if someone had talked to her about the importance of investing in early childhood education, rather than playing catch up when a student is in third grade and is struggling to read.
Teachers influenced Olga’s path, and they continue to inspire her. “I became a teacher because I had great teachers,” Olga says. “That’s who built me up.”
Olga holds an open door for anyone to come and learn about the work at Bachman Lake Together. There are volunteer opportunities for the food pantry or other distribution events. And as they are in the business of early education, the Bachman Lake Together team is always looking for donations of books and other educational materials. And as the family center begins to slowly open again to families, Olga will be there, showing that each child has the capacity to learn, and each parent has the capacity to lead.
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