At the end of seventh grade, Richard Garcia decided to quit school in Monte Vista because he lost his motivation for studying, he said.
Many times he intended to return, but discouraged by the death of his mother in 1959, he joined the Navy at the age of 17. Only in the '70s, after he had four children of his own, did he go back to school. For good.
"I found out that I could be a good student. By then I was 26," he said of his time at the University of Colorado, where he earned his degree with the help of a program for migrant families. It was at CU that Garcia abandoned his dream of being an attorney to encourage others - particularly migrants - to keep on studying.
Education became Garcia's passion in life, and he has spent the better part of it teaching others the value of a good education - helping them and their children succeed in a system not designed with them in mind.
"I want to make a difference in people's lives, and I want to assure that through parental involvement that the Latino community is not left behind as it relates to education. I worry that 50 percent of our kids are dropping out of high school."
Garcia, 68, worked in various posts in the North Conejos School District in southern Colorado and for the Boulder Valley schools, where he advocated for bilingual education programs long before they were widely accepted. After he earned his Master's Degree in education, Garcia taught early education and bilingual education classes at the Community College of Denver.
But it has been in his role as director of the Statewide Parent Coalition where he has left his legacy with regard to parent participation in the education of their children, said Arturo Jimenez, vice president of the Denver Public Schools board.
"He has been an education advocate, a mentor to people like me. He has organized parents, worked on legislation for education funding and was instrumental in supporting the charter school act early but also he is an advocate for public education," Jimenez said.
As an expert source on parent involvement programs, local and national government representatives often consult with Garcia when creating programs or crafting legislation.
"What I admire most about him is that he never got caught up in anyone's politics. He is the one person legislators and educators turn to for information on parent engagement and education funding," Jimenez said.
The Statewide Parent Coalition was founded in 1980 to be a resource center for migrant parents, a place where they could get the education and the tools necessary to boost the academic performance of their kids, Garcia said. Today the coalition offers parent workshops in 10 to 12 schools each year.
Some of the programs include:
School Readiness, a Three-Step Process for early childhood education.
Los Padres and Las Madres, which focus on training parents to get involved.
Parent Leadership Training, a school leadership program for parents.
Funding is provided by the federal Department of Education and grants.
The Academia Ana Marie Sandoval, a dual-language elementary school in northwest Denver, offers the Three-Step program. Principal JoAnn Trujillo Hays said Garcia played an important role in finding the funding to implement the program at the school, which has 380 students who speak both Spanish and English.
"He is a voice for many parents who would not otherwise have a voice. That has been his mission, his focus. His strength is working with parents so they can be more involved in schools. He also understands that he has to work with school personnel to strengthen the communication between parents and schools," said Trujillo Hays.
Another successful program, according to Garcia, is Los Padres, which trains 10-20 fathers at a time in a 10-week program on how to become actively involved in the lives and education of their children.
"Everyone thinks that parental involvement in education means how to get families to the schools for meetings. But it's more than that. It is also educating families on what they can do at home to help their kids," Garcia said. "You get the father involved, you are going to see a child going to school more frequently, discipline issues go down, and you are going to see achievement go up."
Cecilio Lomeli Chavez took Los Padres classes at Annunciation school 10 years ago.
Back then his children were in elementary and middle school. Today, the oldest, Gustavo, who is 25, graduated from Metro State College. His brother Oscar, 22, graduated from Regis University. Carlos, 20, will finish his degree at the University of Denver in 2012, and little sister, Daniela, who is 14, attends a Catholic school.
Lomeli credits his and wife Maria Ines' involvement in their children's lives for their success. And that was all possible because of the training he received in the fathers' workshop, he said.
"Working and providing food for your kids is not enough," he said. "Mr. Garcia is a special person. He helped me to overcome my shyness, and he talked to me and my kids a lot about education. They gave us books as our tools, and I will always be grateful."
The Statewide Parent Coalition recognized the Lomeli family at their three-day annual conference at the end of May, which about 350 people attended in Colorado Springs.
They are an example for other parents in how to use the resources and the tools the coalition offers to help their children succeed in school, Garcia said.
Garcia, who has six grown children of his own, would like to see more parent training programs across the country, especially in places with a high population of Latinos. Parent participation is important for everyone, he said, but it's critical for Latinos, who will make up 29 percent of the population by 2050, according to projections from the Pew Hispanic Center.
"If children graduate with a high school diploma, and they go on to higher education, they are going to earn a million dollars more in their lifetimes. So what does that mean for society? It means that those particular kids are going to be kept off of the public assistance rolls and out of penal institutions," Garcia said. "If we don't do something, Hispanics will be the largest undereducated minority population in the United States."
For more information about the programs that the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition offers visit www.coparentcoalition.org or call 720.890.0123.