Two evenings a week, families enter the gym at Roosevelt Elementary looking for education and personal connections. Upon arrival they’re often greeted by Hilda Lail, Family Advocate with Vancouver Public Schools’ Family-Community Resource Centers (FCRCs). Lail oversees The Plaza, a high-impact program designed for families from different cultural backgrounds to help improve skills such as English, while also increasing awareness of available resources and opportunities. During the events children of all ages participate in age-appropriate academic activities led by teachers and paraeducators.

The program started in 2009 as “La Plaza” as a way to help the District’s large population of Hispanic families improve their English skills and better navigate the school system. The program has grown over the years with a current enrollment of roughly 110 children from 100 families, and about 60-70 people attending each event. The Plaza has also evolved to reflect the diversity within VPS, where 100 different languages are represented. Attendees come from Mexico, Ukraine, Cambodia, Thailand, Russia, Micronesia, and other countries. By connecting these often-marginalized communities to school and community resources, The Plaza helps families integrate and stabilize.

After the pandemic paused in-person school events, staff looked for an opportunity to bring The Plaza back and expand its reach. While the program receives funding for a small number of staff from a Federal grant, food and other resources are provided through donations. The Foundation for VPS stepped up to support the program by leveraging both community partners and financial gifts, including a $5,000 donation from Amerigroup of Washington. “We were excited to work with the FCRCs to bring The Plaza back for our families. It is a dynamic program that holistically supports our families. In the wake of a pandemic it made sense to bring back a program that helped us not only strengthen our community, but build it as well,” said Jenny Thompson, Foundation for VPS, Executive Director.

Lail is passionate about empowering the families she serves. As a non-native English speaker, she empathizes with parents who have difficulty understanding terminologies when navigating the school system, saying “I talk to our families the way I wish someone would have talked to me.” The events typically include a presentation, often available in multiple languages, on topics of importance to the families. Some recent topics have included students’ rights, graduation, VPS Programs of Choice, Clark College Running Start, and citizenship. Lail says many parents and students don’t know about available opportunities, aren’t aware that it’s available for them, or they get the information too late. “I want to make sure they hear about the opportunities we have, and take that opportunity.”

Although The Plaza isn’t a preschool, children are grouped by age with teachers and paraeducators to engage in learning activities while their parents are in classes. Lail notes that everything is based on games, so the kids are playing while also learning. Children as young as 2 and 3 are taught letters, numbers, colors, and phonics in English. Students preparing to enter kindergarten follow a path to proficiency. And current students are helped to stay on track with their peers. By utilizing learning and assessment programs, teachers can identify where a child is in their education and can focus on areas needing support. This year they purchased a computer program called Lexia to help students who are learning English. It tests the student when they begin and tracks their improvement. They are able to access the program not just during The Plaza, but also at school and at home. “It’s amazing to see how the students learn. We have students who just moved to this country a month ago and they are already using English. It’s not just from The Plaza, but it’s amazing to see them be happy to be here and to be okay hearing Spanish, Chinese, Ukrainian, Russian.”

Another ingredient essential to the program’s appeal supported by the Foundation is the community meal offered once a month. Highlighting a specific heritage for each dinner allows families the opportunity to celebrate other cultures while also sharing their background and experiences. The evenings also include a presentation about the culture. “To me it’s important, because when the kids learn about another culture, they go back to school and they don’t feel isolated, thinking ‘I’m not from this country or I’m different’. They understand they are part of another culture and there are other kids from different cultures,” said Lail. Because some of the families attending The Plaza regularly struggle with food insecurity, there is also a food pantry once a month. The pantry offers families an option to pick up food after work if they are not able to access one of the 8 monthly daytime VPS food pantries.

Moving forward Lail has a long list of goals for The Plaza, while continuing its current services. She would like to add additional staff to offer a teacher in each classroom along with a paraeducator. She would also like to offer tutoring and homework help for all students, offer internships for student volunteers, and expand partnerships to increase opportunities for adults like GED classes, computer skills, and job placement. In the meantime, she just wants people to know that all are welcome to The Plaza, which runs through June.

The Foundation for VPS supports The Plaza and other opportunities for family engagement which are shown to be successful in building connections between parents, teachers, students, and community resources. The Plaza, while providing practical assistance, also honors our community’s rich heritages, helping new community members integrate and stabilize while retaining a pride and connection to their culture of origin.