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A Journey of Learning

A Cambodian refugee from Long Beach.

A teacher turned grandmother from West Athens. 

A small business child care provider from Palmdale. 

A working mom and dad from the San Fernando Valley. 

Each of them from different backgrounds, but all on a similar journey as Best Start Community Partnership leaders to improve the lives of young children and their families in Los Angeles County. A journey that recently led them north by bus, car and airplane to San Francisco on a pilgrimage to learn how to best help young learners succeed in school.

As part of a diverse delegation of 74 leaders from Best Start Community Partnerships, they descended upon the Institute for Educational Leadership’s 2017 National Conference at the Hilton Union Square Hotel on June 22-24. Entitled Engaging Families: Transformational Moments, Sustainable Practices, the conference drew 1,675 people from 49 states and five countries to focus on improving family, school and community partnerships through systemic family and community engagement.

With 90 workshops and four plenary sessions over three days, many of the topics at the San Francisco conference were aligned with the outcomes being pursued by the Best Start Community Partnerships, such as building parent leadership; advocacy and community organizing; relationship building and trust; connecting to resources and supports; and promoting inclusion and ensuring equity.

 “This conference is so exciting and eye opening to see how people are working together in different parts of the nation and on a national level to engage families with schools,” said Sithary Ly, a leader with Best Start Central Long Beach.


Ly’s own journey began in Cambodia, where her father was killed during the Khmer Rouge massacres and she was separated from her mother at the age of 10. After years of enslavement, she escaped and later fled to the U.S., where she was taken in by a family in Chicago and eventually moved to Long Beach, where helping children and youth in the community has been her number one issue. 

“Kids in my community need more preschool.” -Sithary Ly

“I see kids with a lack of education because the immigrant parent – both Hispanic and Cambodian - does not know much English and their kid doesn’t get to preschool. So when they do start school, they have a hard time the first and second year,” said Ly, who previously worked as a teacher’s aide and now serves as a parent coach supervisor with First 5 LA’s Welcome Baby program at St. Mary Medical Center. “Kids in my community need more preschool.”

Ly found inspiration in the form of a workshop on sustainable early learning programs co-designed with refugee and immigrant families in Clarkston, Georgia, which is dubbed “the most diverse square mile in America”. By listening to immigrant residents, convening dialogues and involving them in the decision making, an ongoing project called Clarkston Families Decide empowered residents to design a free preschool for 3 to 4 year olds, focused on language and literacy where home language and respect for culture were an integral part of the curriculum and where teachers spoke Arabic, Somali and English. Additionally, CDF partnered with a local college to offer Clarkston refugee women with early childhood education credential training to help them work as aides and teachers in local preschools. 

“One of the things we learned in our listening sessions is that differences are strengths, not barriers,” said Roberta Malavenda, executive director of CDF Action, which oversees the Clarkston Families Decide project.

“As a refugee, I could relate to it,” Ly said of the workshop. “A lot of parents get frustrated and say, ‘You don’t know me and you don’t know my kid.’ You have to listen to parents and let parents decide what they want to do to improve their child’s health, life and education. When they pick, they want to be involved.”


With 35 years of experience as an educator under her belt, Onamia J. Bryant has earned the respect and admiration of her students over a lifetime. Yet this Best Start West Athens leader has also learned that school districts do not always treat parents – and grandparents – with that same respect.

While raising her young granddaughter, Amber, she was told that the parent advisory board she served on was no longer welcome at Amber’s elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. When Amber heard the news, she told her grandmother: “If you’re not going to my school anymore, I’m not going to school.”

So Bryant pulled her out of public school and placed her in a charter school, where Amber graduated last month.

This memory resonated with Bryant at the conference, where she attended a workshop with a speaker who recounted a similar tale of disrespect towards the public in public education. Local voters in Stockton had passed a school bond providing funds that government officials later wanted to spend otherwise than intended, prompting parents to speak up.

“The parents said, ‘No. This was intended for the schools,’” Bryant recalled the speaker saying. “The officials were like, ‘Uh oh. They’ve been reading these bonds and what they’re for.’”

To Bryant, this shared experience highlighted the importance of parents educating themselves about how school districts and government officials spend their tax dollars: “We need parents to step up and say, ‘I’m here to help you spend our tax dollars wisely.”

Another key conference takeaway for Bryant was the continued prevalence of illiteracy, something she worked hard to combat in her 2nd and 3rd grade classes by bringing in newspapers for students to read. 

“What I got from the conference was that ‘Jerome can’t read. Jose can’t read. Huong can’t read,’” Bryant said. “There are too many young adults who are struggling to get by in school, and it would have made a difference if they had a little more education at an early age.  And you can’t blame the teacher. Teachers do as much as they can with what they have. I know. I’ve been on both sides of the desk.”

Asked how she hopes to apply these learnings to Best Start West Athens, Bryant said, not surprisingly, the answer lies in education: “We can have workshops for parents so they can understand what is going on in their schools and how to engage with them. The bottom line is parents need to be proactive.”


Running a small business as a child care provider in Palmdale, Sabrena Whigham sees firsthand the struggles low-income parents face just getting their kids to – and paying for – early care and education in her high desert community. And despite her best efforts to help them, there is only so much she can do by herself.

“A lot of these kids are going straight into kindergarten without a lot of early childhood education.” -Sabrena Whigham

In the Black Family Voice Project workshop presented by SOAR, Whigham learned that nationally, only 52 percent of African American children attend preschool between the ages of 3-4 years old.

“A lot of these kids are going straight into kindergarten without a lot of early childhood education,” Whigham noted.

And when they do enroll in school, Whigham learned, African Americans are more likely than fellow students to be chronically absent, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of their days in school.

“They have a double disadvantage,” Whigham said. “We need to reach these parents to help them understand how important school is and to feel responsible enough to bring their kids in.”

In California, chronic absentee rates for preschool students are highest among African Americans, at 11 percent. The chronic absentee rate in California for African American K-5 students is 14 percent, twice the rate for all students.  According to Attendance Works, which featured several speakers at the conference, chronic absenteeism can make it harder to learn to read and easier for children to fall behind in school.

Putting these learnings into action back in Best Start Palmdale, Whigham said she would like to examine ways the Community Partnership could expand its outreach efforts: “You have to go to their homes and engage them where they are instead of waiting for them to come to us.”

As a child care provider, Whigham was very excited to learn at the conference that some apartment complexes are allowing early care and education centers to be located within their buildings, providing easier access for low-income parents.  

“They are doing this around the country,” she said. “You go to an apartment complex and offer the service, making it more convenient for the parents who struggle with transportation issues. It’s a wave of the future I didn’t even consider.”


“It shows that being a dad is not just about bringing home the bacon.” -Edwin Panameno

As parents of three children – ages 8, 7 and 3 – Edwin and Yanci Panameno have shared the demands of raising a young family in the San Fernando Valley, as well as demanding jobs – him as a bank manager and her as an early literacy program coordinator. And while they have sometimes been rushed to get them to pre-K across town or to ensure they read them a book at bedtime, they each know how important it is that both mom and dad be there to support their children’s early education.

That lesson was reinforced at a workshop Edwin attended, “Doubling the Odds of Early Childhood Success: Engaging Dads”, presented by former principal Allan Shedlin of the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In the workshop, Shedlin made a number of key points about dads in education gleaned from more than 20 years of in-depth interviews with hundreds of dads and granddads in four countries:

  • Many men do not have positive memories of school as boys, keeping them from returning as fathers
  • In notices of school events, dads are often mentioned as an afterthought: “Dads welcome, too”
  • There are not a lot of male role models in classrooms: 95 percent of school staff are women

Shedlin’s research resonated with Edwin, who volunteers his time with Yanci reading children’s books to kids at local libraries as part of a project by Best Start Panorama City and Neighbors, which also created a “Ready for Kinder” book. Edwin also likes to share this fact with other parents: a dad only has to volunteer once at their child’s school for their grades to go up.  

“That to me is very impactful,” he said. “It shows that being a dad is not just about bringing home the bacon.”

To address the lack of dads involved in schools, Shedlin shared how he began to bring dads, granddads and father figures together at the National Child Research Center Preschool in Washington, D.C. The dads would meet once a month before school started, watch a short video tied to their child’s school curriculum or read a children’s book, do an activity with their child and then, after the children went to class, get together to discuss a family issue, such as anger or resiliency, or a school issue, such as how to show concern when a child is falling behind their peers at school. 

As a result of participating in these groups, Shedlin said, dads saw themselves as more important in their child’s life, felt more able to resolve conflicts with their child, and enjoyed spending time with their children more. 

“It was enlightening, powerful and empowering,” Edwin said of the workshop. “We need to revolutionize the way we invite dads to participate in schools because once we get them involved, we may be surprised at their willingness to participate and their hunger to become better male role model figures when given the chance to learn.”


For Yanci, motivation was on the menu at the breakfast and lunch plenary sessions, where keynote speakers shared their inspiring and relatable personal stories to engage families and communities with schools.

Yanci was particularly taken by Pecolia Manigo, who went from being homeless with her family in San Francisco at the age of 10, to later advocating for more homeless shelters under the mayor of San Francisco, becoming a mother at the age of 20, to becoming the Executive Director of Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network (PLAN).

“It has always been youth and parents pushing the system to respond to the rights that they have been denied, and it has always been organizing pushing for systemic change,” said Manigo, who designs programs and organizing efforts that foster shared responsibility for student success among families, schools and communities.  She spoke of how she had to advocate for her infant daughter with a life threatening illness and for her own pursuit of a career. “I had to fight against every stereotype, every prejudice put in front of me just because I was black, young, a single woman and a mother.”

“It was inspiring to hear her say how she fought for not just her rights, but the rights of her daughter,” Yanci said of Manigo. “In my Best Start community, there are not just a lot of young moms, but a lot of single moms who are thirsty for resources.”

In another speech, Yanci connected with the story of a Muslim mom who moved her children from their Muslim community to put them in a better school in an Anglo community. Once there, however, her children were looked at differently and felt excluded. So she moved them back to the school in her Muslim community, where she became involved in the school district and her children’s education.

“I did that with my first child,” Yanci recalled. “We enrolled her in a preschool in Tarzana, across the Valley from our home. I thought it would be better for her because it was in a better neighborhood. But once I was there, I noticed how some parents were being treated differently. And once, when I asked to see a budget for the school, they turned on me. I ended up pulling my daughter out and put her in a preschool closer to home, where all three of my children have attended. It’s a great school and the teachers are wonderful. They are relatable to the children because they are from the community.”


The presence of such a large contingent of Best Start Community Partnership leaders – many of them parents, grandparents or caretakers – provided conference organizers with a learning opportunity as well.

“In many communities across the country, particularly vulnerable communities, parents and families don’t have the same level of control over their educational destiny as the peers in so-called well-to-do or more affluent communities,” said IEL Director of Leadership Programs, S. Kwesi Rollins. “We believe it would be a missed opportunity to have a national dialogue on engaging families and not have them be central to that conversation.  There is a lot of wisdom, experience, strength and hope in the stories of parent and community leaders.”

Best Start participants, Rollins added, “brought a lot of expertise to the table in terms of early childhood education and how best to engage parents and families with young children.  Many of our other K-12 partners and attendees certainly benefited from having (Best Start) parents at the conference, particularly Spanish-speaking parents. We will continue to rely on organizations like First 5 LA to help us continue our learning and to provide key content on best practices in that space.”


As the 74 Best Start participants returned home from the conference, many were already thinking of how they could share their learnings with the Best Start Community Partnerships they had represented.

For Edwin, the lesson learned was that “parent involvement in our schools and community is not just a process, it’s a revolution in which we all have to be part of to make the changes we want to see in our schools and community and to never give up on account of language barriers or doors shut in our face. The struggle continues until we see the changes happen.”


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