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A model for strengthening the economic and social viability of the family.

Governments should support and encourage -- not duplicate, replace or compete with -- community-based family support programs. Investments in parenting, literacy and job training are the key to reversing welfare dependency, reducing urban violence and creating a more adaptable, competitive work force.

Parents are primarily responsible for the physical, social, emotional, and intellectual development of their children. But government has a major public responsibility in supporting parents, building parental competence and strengthening the economic and social viability of the family. The Avance Family Support and Educational Program is a nonprofit organization that has been providing support and education services to low-income families since 1972. Avance strives to strengthen the family unit, enhance parenting skills to help ensure the optimal development of children, promote educational success, and foster the personal and economic success of parents. Avance is a viable intervention model that has been proved empirically to work at changing attitudes, knowledge and behavior, while reversing trends of low educational attainment in the space of a single generation.

Avance was launched in Dallas, Texas in 1972 with a $100,000 grant from the Zale Corporation. Two doctoral students of Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner at Cornell University submitted the initial three-year proposal. Unfortunately, the Avance program in Dallas closed down when the first funding cycle ended. The Dallas program was replicated in San Antonio, Texas in 1973 under the directorship of Dr. Gloria G. Rodriguez (the author) in 1973, serving 31 families in the city's Mirasol Housing Project. The program has grown substantially since then. Avance's 1992-93 budget was $3,232,000. As of 1993, Avance's area chapters are located in San Antonio, Houston and Brownsville, Texas. It also has certified affiliates in Caguas and Barceloneta, Puerto Rico. In addition, Avance operates the Avance/Hasbro National Family Resource Center, providing training, technical assistance and curriculum development and dissemination services. It also has a research department responsible for program evaluation, management of information systems, and special research projects.

The San Antonio operation expanded its services in 1992 to serve a total of 2,021 individuals residing in six housing projects, and attending eight schools and two community centers. In that year, the budget for Avance's San Antonio operations totaled $1,800,000. Sources of revenue included money from the city's general fund, contributions from United Way, corporations and foundations, large multi-year federal grants, and proceeds from fund-raising activities.

Avance was replicated in Houston, Texas in 1988, with a two-year grant from the Kraft General Foods Corporation (Maxwell House Division) in the amount of $250,000 annually. In 1992 the Houston operation served 2,600 individuals with an $800,000 budget consisting of funds from the City of Houston, United Way, corporations and foundations, state and federal sources, and organizational fundraisers.

The Avance Rio Grande Area Chapter was originally funded with a planning grant from the Levi Strauss Foundation, the Christian Children's fund, and direct and in-kind grants from local corporations, churches and the State Department of Human Resources. Avance is currently in the process of negotiating a substantial grant from the Kellogg Foundation to provide services in the "colonias" of the Rio Grande.

Between 1987 and 1993, the Carnegie Corporation of New York has awarded Avance over one million dollars to evaluate the Avance program. The Avance/Hasbro National Family Resource Center was established with an $800,000 grant from the Hasbro Children's Foundation to provide training and technical assistance and complete the Avance curriculum.

Vetelba, Inc. of Puerto Rico was one of many organizations from across the country that attended Avance's 2-1/2-day training institute. Vetelba received JTPA (Job Training Partnership Act) funds to provide job training services to low-income adults. They wanted to link the Avance family literacy component (the program's core parenting/adult literacy program) with their existing job training services to make their program more comprehensive by focusing on two generations. In 1992, with a grant from the Office of Maternal and Child Health, Vetelba became Avance's first certified affiliate program. Avance has also received a planning grant form the Carnegie Corporation to develop a five-year growth plan to expand and enhance its comprehensive services to more high-risk families.

The Avance Approach

Services to the poor have traditionally been fragmented and bureaucratic, providing too little, too late. Great concern has been placed on the cost per unit and the number of people served, not on outcomes. Either the child or the parent was targeted, addressing a specific problem, such as child abuse, teen pregnancy, drug abuse and addiction, juvenile delinquency, etc. Funding was categorical. Low-income individuals were not treated with dignity and respect. This could be attributed to the fact that those providing services were overworked, underpaid and undertrained. It could also be attributed to attitudes and beliefs that certain people could not change. Limited resources were concentrated on those who needed the services least, and high-risk families and neighborhoods were not targeted. Services were also inaccessible or not affordable. There was a mentality that clients should navigate the bureaucratic, fragmented maze to obtain the services they needed. When people were unable to do so, myths emerged that low-income people were unwilling to improve their circumstances and lazy. Too many service providers were stationed behind desks, reflecting a belief that clients "should come and get the services." The social, and cultural affiliation of service providers were also very different from those of clients, typically inserting a language or culture barrier.

Avance has gradually adopted a unique approach to service delivery. The program is family-focused. The child is seen in the context of the family as well as the environment that affects his development. Avance is concerned with outcomes affecting the whole child: his physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual development. Avance believes in preventing the problems of low-income/high-risk families by beginning to intervene in the family when the target child is under the age of two -- preferably when he is in the womb. The child serves as the "hook," the point of entry whereby all family members are reached. The program is also neighborhood-based, providing supports to families in federally subsidized housing projects and low-income communities.

Avance's main goal is to provide essential information on becoming an effective parent and helping parents understand their critical role as the child's first and most important teacher. Parents attend a three-hour weekly program for nine months located in their neighborhood. The group size ranges from 15 to 20 women with children under the age of two years. During the first hour of the weekly program, parents are exposed to information on child growth and development from the Avance bilingual parent education curriculum, presented in a culturally sensitive manner. Class participation is also encouraged, inviting parents to bring their own experiences to the lesson. Parents make educational toys during the second hour. The toys are used as a means to stimulate language development and teach concepts and skills necessary for school readiness. Parents receive a "possibility sheet" with instructions on stimulating language development and learning by using the 30 toys that are made during the nine-month program.

Avance addresses the fragmentation of the social services system by linking needed services to program participants. During the third hour people from various health, mental health, nutrition, housing, social service, and educational organizations are invited to inform parents about the services they provide. Health and nutrition services are provided to all participating families.

Parents are visited once a week in the home to observe and record parent-child educational interaction. The parent is videotaped while playing with the child with the toy made at the Avance center. These visits are an opportunity to communicate with parents directly on particular problems they may be facing. Referrals to various agencies are made to help alleviate any stress that could impede effective parenting.

While mothers attend the parenting classes, their preschool children are supervised at Avance Day Care Centers, which feature learning programs for infants, crawlers and toddlers.

Fathers attend their own parenting support group which is also held once a week in a different location. While mothers make educational toys, fathers are involved in organizing scouting troops for the older children. Avance fathers also receive training that enables them to become better parents of their young children. In addition, the men learn to communicate more effectively with their spouses and deal constructively with anger. Many fathers are upset at being left out of social services traditionally offered to low-income mothers. They resent the negative effects on men of the welfare system. These feelings compound their frustration with not being able to provide for their families due to lack of education, skills or good-paying jobs with benefits. Avance helps fathers as well as mothers to further their education and obtain jobs through its continuum of services.

The core program is a nine-month parenting program that families attend. The parents and children subsequently follow their designated paths. Parents enter the Avance literacy program, which offers opportunities to learn English, obtain a highschool equivalency degree, or pursue college. Avance has worked with existing organizations to make relevant continuing education services more accessible to program participants. Avance has brought the instructors from these organizations to the people that needed their services most, while providing essential transportation and child care services. Federal JTPA and JOBS (Job Opportunities and Basic Skills) program funds are used for this purpose. Thus, Avance links captive, motivated individuals with needed services -- providing the additional supports of child care and transportation -- to build parenting and work skills as parents progress toward greater self-sufficiency and pride.

Parents are encouraged to enroll their children in the Head Start Program or an early childhood program after the nine-month parenting program. Avance has also located itself in numerous elementary schools where it offers parent education focusing on the older child and the parent's responsibilities and rights in the schools. For older children, the program also offers tutoring classes, scouting activities, mentoring and counseling, and scholarships to a state-sponsored school for any Avance child completing his high school education. Avance siblings and parents are also qualified to receive college assistance with books and tuition. JOBS, JTPA and additional public and private sector funds are needed if Avance parents and/or children wish to pursue a job-training track rather than attend college. Transportation, child care and a social support network are critical to the transition out of welfare dependency. Moreover, the business community must be involved and ready to make jobs available to people after training, which must be oriented toward employment with decent wages and benefits.

Avance Research Activities

Carnegie Evaluation of the Parent-Child Education Program. An extensive scientific evaluation funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York has provided strong evidence supporting the effectiveness of the Avance Parent-Child Education Program. Two parent-child "teams" were followed each year for two years at two program sites. Control groups, randomly assigned at one site and matched at the second site, were also employed. Upon completion of the program and then again one year later, data were collected concerning maternal behavior, attitudes and continuing education among both groups. The findings of the study are summarized below.

Avance program mothers were observed to:

* Provide a more organized, stimulating and responsive home environment;

* Provide more developmentally appropriate toys;

* Be more positive in interacting with the child;

* Initiate more social interactions with the child;

* Use more contingent praise with the child;

* Spend more time teaching the child;

* Talk more with the child;

* Use more developmentally appropriate speech with the child; and

* Be more encouraging of the child's verbalizations.

Avance program mothers reported:

* More nurturing attitudes toward the child;

* More opposition to physical punishment;

* Enhanced view of self as the child's teacher;

* Increased sense of parental efficacy;

* Increased parental knowledge and skills;

* Increased knowledge and use of community resources; and

* Increased knowledge of contraceptive methods.

Program mother-child dyadic interaction was marked by:

* Enhanced mutual enjoyment of the activity;

* Mutual responsiveness and turntaking; and

* Participation in joint rather than parallel activities.

Regarding continuing education:

* Upon graduation from the parent-education program, twice as many program participants elected to continue their education by enrolling in continuing education classes than did the control group.

Seventeen-Year Reunion Survey. In 1991, Avance held a 17-year reunion of its first graduating class. Of the 31 women who graduated that first year, 23 were located and gathered together for a ceremony. Those 23 women were joined in their attendance of the Avance program by 32 children. Information on the attendees' educational attainment was compiled. Ninety-one percent of the mothers entering the Avance program in 1973 had dropped out of school. The data collected at the reunion indicate the program served as a catalyst for these families to continue their education. As of 1991:

* 94 percent of children who attended Avance had either completed high school received a GED or were still attending high school;

* 43 percent of children who graduated were attending college;

* 57 percent of mothers who had dropped out secured a GED; and

* 64 percent of mothers had attended college or a technical program.

(One additional parent who participated in Avance's first program year was located in 1992; she had received her GED, was working, and her son was attending college.)

Avance's Achievements

The Avance program is one of the oldest and largest family-support and education programs in the nation, and one of few such programs that has been evaluated formally. The program offers viable solutions to many of the social and economic problems plaguing this nation's cities. Avance provides periodic training institutes for individuals and organizations wishing to observe the program model and learn more about its unique strategies and philosophy. As president of Avance, the author speaks throughout the county and is involved in numerous local, state and national initiatives related to promoting policies that strengthen and support families.

Avance has been featured three times in The New York Times, twice in Business Week, in The Atlantic Monthly, and on ABC World News Tonight and Good Morning America. Avance has been visited by Prince Charles of Wales, twice by former First Lady Barbara Bush, and by the First Lady of Mexico, Mrs. Salinas de Gotarri. Avance was also cited as one of ten national model programs for family literacy in First Teachers, a book published by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, and as a Collaborative Model Program by the Inspector General's Office. Avance was part of the national documentary entitled "Scared Silent: Exposing and Ending Child Abuse" for its successes in preventing child abuse and neglect. The program was also featured in an international documentary entitled "the Creative Spirit" for its creative solutions to some of our thorniest social problems.

Important Program Characteristics

Avance was built on the existing knowledge base of early childhood and parent education. It evolved to become a more preventive, comprehensive, integrative, and continuous system of service delivery for all family members. Early on, the program struggled with funding agency personnel charged with evaluating Avance's effectiveness; they evidently did not understand or trust the program's non-traditional approach. Avance held steadfastly to those elements of its program that it considered most important. Less concerned with the number of people served, the cost per unit or existing categorical funding, Avance has emphasized enduring change and effecting positive outcomes.

Avance embraces the philosophy that people can change, that they need opportunities to help themselves and their families, and that they should be treated with dignity and respect. Support services must be both accessible and affordable. For that reason, the Avance centers are located in very low-income neighborhoods. Services are supplied at no cost to participating inflows, except for their in-kind contributions related to making toys and volunteering in the day care centers.

A significant element of Avance's program is the practice of hiring those individuals from the community who graduated from the parenting program. Program graduates are encouraged and assisted in obtaining a high school education and pursuing college. They have thus become community role models, projecting a successful image of good parenting and commitment to education and worthwhile employment.

Helping parents to raise their children through parent education has been the core of Avance's program. The program establishes relationships and builds trust with people who are predominantly single, on welfare, who dropped out of school, and typically exhibit depressive symptoms. These are the individuals who traditionally have been neglected by most municipal services. The strength they bring to the program, however, is their love for their children and their desire to see them succeed. This has been their initial motivation to attend the nine-month parenting program. That participation positions Avance as the lead agency in their lives and the window through which participants and their families access other existing health, mental health, nutritional, social, educational, literacy ,and job training services.


Policies must be adopted at the federal, state and local levels to enable and encourage inter-agency collaboration in low-income communities. Existing nonprofit initiatives with proven records of success at reaching high-risk families should be supported, enhanced and expanded. Competent and dedicated individuals who want to launch nonprofit family centers should be encouraged to receive training from existing programs and assisted in forming 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations to provide needed services to the most vulnerable families in their communities.

Municipal government has a very important role to play in supporting families, but it should not be in the business of delivering family support services directly. Municipal governments should not duplicate, compete with or eliminate existing nonprofit organizations. When transferred from the nonprofit sector, such services become too fragmented and bureaucratic. Municipal governments should assist with funding, in-kind support, program evaluation, and the promotion of collaborative partnerships. They have an important role in rallying the community to create a common vision for helping those members of the community that need services most. They should take the lead in mobilizing the resources necessary to address issues of poverty, neighborhood by neighborhood.

Communities should adopt strategic plans to concentrate on those areas that need services most. Many cities host "war zones" that affect the quality of life and safety of all their citizens. Marginal neighborhoods have been permitted to decline further, becoming infiltrated with drugs and guns. Children are traumatized daily by drive-by shootings, drug-related activity and street crime. Compounding the violence in the streets, children spend endless hours viewing violence on television and playing with aggressive toys. They are not receiving the love, attention and guidance they need because their parents are either working two or three jobs to make ends meet or forced into the street to make a living illegally.

Too many children are hurting and killing other children. What we see in the streets are symptoms of children who are not getting what they need -- because their parents are not getting what they need. Our children are the barometers that measure the strength of our communities. They are an expression of how responsive our leaders have been at addressing issues of poverty. We cannot continue to blame parents for society's problems if government and the business and voluntary communities have not done their part in child rearing. It takes a village to raise a child and we must all contribute.

If gang members appear callous -- without remorse or concern for the value of life -- have elected officials and their constituents set a more constructive example? We cannot solve these problems with walls dividing communities or solely by hiring more police officers and building more prisons. Bold leadership is needed to attack these problems, much as a general would strategize in allocating forces to win the major battles of a war. If cities do not support the basic unit of society, the family, they will surely lose the war. Gang memberships are rapidly growing because society has failed to act responsibly. Municipal governments must enhance the economic and social viability of the family by supporting community-based family centers.

Gloria G. Rodriguez, Ph.D. is president and chief executive officer of Avance in San Antonio, Texas.


1. Begin in the Home 2. Be Community-Based 3. Be Comprehensive in Scope 4. Be Preventive in Nature 5. Have Child (0 to 3) as the Entry Point 6. Provide Sequential Services to Child and Parents
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Title Annotation:Nurturing the Family; Avance Family Support and Education Program
Author:Rodriguez, Gloria G.
Publication:National Civic Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Next Article:Public-private-nonprofit partnerships for breaking welfare dependency.

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