Teach For America Accelerate Fellowship Students and Tomas Tamez, DISD Parent and Family Engagement Director

A partnership between Donna ISD and the Teach for America (TFA) Accelerate Fellowship program this summer proved to be beneficial for both.

TFA selected 37 rising college juniors and seniors from across the country to participate in a paid summer fellowship. Of those, six – Adriana Hardwicke (University of California, Los Angeles), Stefano Scotti (Vanderbilt University), Kate Wellmann (Texas A&M University), Miles Woodhill (Washington University in St. Louis), Nate Gunawan (Northwestern University) and Jessica McKay (Stony Brook University) — were teamed up to work alongside DISD’s Parent and Family Engagement Department.

Hardwicke, the group’s spokesperson, said the team visited Los Angeles and New Orleans before settling at DISD for the last two weeks of the program. “This is an incredible opportunity to have travelled to these places and learn so much so quickly,” Hardwicke said. “I can’t imagine another fellowship opportunity that would give us this kind of experience and exposure to different education systems.”

At DISD, the students were asked to research ways in which to better communicate with the district’s undocumented students. “We interviewed people about how schools and the community could provide undocumented students better access to resources and opportunities to help them graduate from high school,” Hardwicke said. “That was our core challenge. The fellowship group felt it was just as important that access to resources be available to all students, not just the undocumented to ensure that they be successful if they choose to go to college.”

Donna ISD Superintendent Fernando Castillo addresses TFA Fellowship Students

The fellowship team researched how parents could play a role in their children’s education. “We had the chance to see how parents and families can be more engaged and learn how to support their children at home,” Hardwicke said. “We think that’s important in a child’s education.”

After their two-week visit, the college students prepared a presentation with possible solutions to Parent and Family Engagement Director Tomas Tamez. They encouraged his department to partner with the district’s new Simultaneous Bilingual program and start a dialogue.

“We recommended the departments develop a curriculum specifically for parents in the new bilingual program to educate them on what’s going on in the program, why it’s important and how they can support it at home,” Hardwicke said. “We also encouraged them to find ways to reach out to parents especially those of undocumented students.”

The students also created a survey for teachers and parents to help the departments identify students in need. Tamez said the information the college students provided will help the district move forward. “This was a great opportunity for our district,” he said. “We were able to collaborate our efforts and come up with a plan to address those needs.”

In the end, the school district benefited and the fellowship students gained leadership skills, forged new relationships and helped solve meaningful issues alongside DISD administrators.