Hispanic students account for approximately half of the Austin Independent School District (AISD) population, and about half of these students are English Language Learners (ELLs) that come from Spanish-speaking households. “As the fastest growing population in AISD, it is important that we help them succeed,” said Sylvia Acevedo, event founder, former rocket scientist, ex-Dell executive, and CEO of Communicard.
It is important to stress the value of getting an advanced education and remaining bilingual, said Acevedo, because it will provide prosperity for all of Central Texas. The schoolchildren of today are tomorrow’s Central Texas workforce.
Taking cues from the business arena, Acevedo decided to segment the market to focus on this quickly growing group and created Feria Para Aprender (The Learning Fair). In 2007, Acevedo partnered with Austin Partners in Education and various Spanish media outlets to create this event aimed at teaching Spanish-speaking parents how to navigate the United States education system.
“Parents are parents, they all want the best for their child regardless of the language they speak. The thing is they don’t know what the rules are,” Acevedo said in a previous interview. It takes a lot of parental involvement for students to do well in school. Some of these parents are from countries where education is minimized. Acevedo believes in empowering the parents by teaching them the importance of Pre-K and that high school graduation is expected in the U.S.
The core messages of Feria Para Aprender are that education is key to a better life in the U.S. and that remaining bilingual will provide more career opportunities.
According to Acevedo, the fair also has a strong economic development message, which is to help these families understand the opportunities for careers in Central Texas. New to the fair this year are career pods, with specialists and professionals on hand from areas such as teaching, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), digital media, and health care to describe these growing fields and how to prepare for careers in these industries.
This year’s fair will also feature a mock dual language classroom with live teaching demonstrations for parents so that they can be fully immersed in a real-world educational experience that is completely framed around them in their own language.
Follow up surveys indicate that the learning fair has had positive results, such as parents becoming more involved in their child’s education and students reading more. Although it is not a focus of the fair, there has also been an increase in the number of parents enrolling in classes to learn English and G.E.D. courses after attending past Ferias. Austin Community College (ACC) has committed an extra two million dollars for these classes.
This Saturday marks the fourth year of the nation’s largest Spanish language only education event. The event has grown from 3,500 attendees in 2007 to 7,500 in 2009. The event moved from the Tony Burger Center to the Travis County Expo Center this year to better accommodate the 10,000 students, parents, and teachers they expect to attend the Feb. 6 fair, happening from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Organizers replicated Feria Para Aprender in August 2009 in Los Angeles and had a turnout of 20,000. The fair will be reproduced in several other cities throughout Texas this year.
The layout of the fair is serpentine, leading attendees from early infancy learning and Pre-K onto high school, college, and careers. Over 400 volunteers have been trained to speak to the parents at their level and in their language.
Since its inception, Feria Para Aprender has become more than a once-a-year events. It has become a mobilization event to train local education organizations on the demographic shifts in the area and how to serve this growing Spanish-speaking population.
“The City of Austin is working diligently to improve our work interacting with and engaging our Spanish-speaking population,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “I applaud the work that the organizers of the Feria are doing, and the City is proud to support their effort with information and engagement opportunities in Spanish.”By Vicky Garza