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A Former Teacher Turns Classroom Prowess Into Partnerships With Families

Ana Pasarella spent years working as an elementary teacher at the Alvin Independent school district south of Houston, seeing students from lower-income households progress well in their reading skills during the school year only to return in the fall reading at lower proficiency levels.

When she became the director of family and community engagement for the district, she couldn’t shake the interactions she had with students over the years.

“A lot of kids told me ‘We don’t have books to read in the summertime,’” she said. “And I would say, ‘Well, you can go to the public library.’ And then they would say, ‘Well, mom and dad are working, and we’re at home.’”

It wasn’t a part of Pasarella’s job to solve the so-called “summer slide” of students unable to keep reading over summer break. No one asked her to expand families’ access to free pre-K education. She didn’t have to figure out how to retrofit an old school bus into a mobile science, technology, engineering, and math lab. None of that is typically in a family- and community-engagement director’s purview.

Yet Pasarella’s resume now includes a few more bullet points:

  • Launched a districtwide summer mobile library known as the book bus.
  • Launched a training course for families to be able to teach pre-K at home—especially when they cannot afford to pay but are ineligible for a preexisting free school.
  • Launched a STEM bus with tools for lesson plans aligned to state standards.
  • Runs a student-mentorship program.
  • Converted “parent university” sessions to a virtual space to keep more families updated on major district news and instructional best practices.

Her drive behind all this work is simple: her passion for students’ well-being and success and giving families and the broader community a chance to put their assets to good use.

“I’m constantly paying attention to the needs of the students,” Pasarella, 54, said. “I just want them to have all the opportunities regardless of where they live or the resources that their parents might provide to them.”

An innovator and teacher at heart

Originally from Venezuela, Pasarella and her husband came to the United States 20 years ago to learn English. She ended up getting a bachelor’s degree at Belmont University in Tennessee while her husband acquired a work visa. They later moved to Texas due to her husband’s job. (They both secured their green cards and eventual citizenship).

When moving to Texas she opted to get her teaching certification through an alternative certification program.

Pasarella started working in the Alvin district in 2007 as a pre-K bilingual teacher and has since taken many different roles—including kindergarten bilingual teacher and gifted and talented specialist.

The district enrolls about 1,000 students annually and its ethnic composition is 42 percent Hispanic, 23 percent white, 22 percent African American, 9 percent Asian and 4 percent other.

In 2014, Pasarella put her communications degree to use and moved to the family- and community-engagement office housed within the district’s communications department as a coordinator.

Pasarella, a 2024 EdWeek Leaders To Learn From honoree, said she still thought like a teacher and felt she could leverage her new position as a way to address concerns she heard from students and families in the classroom.

An engagement coordinator with a teaching background isn’t the norm in this line of work, said Vidya Sundaram, the co-founder and chief executive of the national nonprofit Family Engagement Lab, which works toward the advancement of learning-centered family engagement in P-12 systems. Nor do all teachers necessarily have experience in family engagement.

“But Ana has a pretty distinctive ability to view the experience of a student through both lenses,” Sundaram said. “And I think the lesson in this is that schools and districts should be thinking about how to bring both of those lenses, recognizing the interconnectedness of them, in a student’s life.”

Book bus shows Pasarella’s passion for bringing people together

Pasarella’s claim to fame is the book bus she launched in 2016, which to date has served thousands of students and has inspired other districts in Texas to follow suit.

She thought of a bookmobile as a possible solution to the summer-slide phenomenon and decided to ask for a meeting with the then Alvin superintendent to share her thoughts.

“He just said make it happen,” Pasarella recalls. That was all the incentive she needed.

She next met with Sheila Olson, the executive director of the district’s Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that runs innovative teaching grants for teachers, scholarships for graduating seniors, and scholarships for paraprofessionals who want to become teachers, among other supplemental projects.

When Pasarella approached Olson about the book-bus idea, it was kismet: Olson had been looking for an opportunity where the foundation could fund a district-level project that would have an immediate tangible impact, and here was Pasarella with a plan.

“She brought a new energy. She’s just very quick to see where relationships can be made,” Olson said. “Not that anyone was ignoring that before, but she just put a new face on it.”

That connection led to a meeting with the then-director of transportation for the district and district librarians.

Pasarella also got teachers from the district’s career and technical education program on board for students to do the manual labor involved in retrofitting an old school bus as part of their course credit work.

Through $10,000 from the Education Foundation, and community donations of 14,000 new and used books, the book bus reached students across the district’s geographic span of 252 square miles and brought in volunteers from within the district and local legislative offices to read to students at various stops.

Leveraging community assets was key to other successes

The book bus’s success gave Pasarella the leverage she needed to keep going. Through her own 20-week curriculum, approved by the district and based on state guidelines and standards for pre-k and kindergarten, Pasarella offers parents classes to learn how to teach their children pre-K skills when they cannot afford regular programming. Recent district data have found that students whose parents completed this READy program are better prepared for kindergarten than peers who didn’t access pre-K at all.

At least twice a month, Pasarella also leads virtual sessions of “parent university,” tailoring discussion topics and guest experts to various needs parents face, such as a session on math and reading instruction for elementary-grade parents and a session on filling out federal financial aid forms for high school parents. Before the pandemic, the sessions were held in person with limited attendance. Once Pasarella shifted gears to virtual meetings at lunchtime, more families have been participating, though sometimes she does offer in-person options based on demand.

Accommodating and tailoring programming to families’ needs and life circumstances is key to dispelling the myth that families don’t care about their children’s education, said Elisabeth O’Bryon, the co-founder and chief impact officer of the Family Engagement Lab nonprofit.

“This is just showing families really care, they show up in many different ways,” O’Bryon said.

Though one of the smaller programs under her management, Pasarella is proud of the district’s mentorship program in which community members can sign up to mentor high school students after going through vetting and training.

Pasarella recalls one high school sophomore who wanted to drop out and start working to support himself. He did well in school and wanted to be an aerospace engineer but didn’t see a pathway. His mentor had connections at the NASA center in Houston, and through those connections, the student was able to intern at NASA during high school and is now in college studying aerospace engineering.

That is what effective community engagement is all about, O’Bryon said.

“There are adults that can help in so many different ways, and when you’re coordinating what’s happening in the school, what’s possible in the community, what’s happening in your home, those adults all working in sync and in partnership is really powerful,” she added.

Alvin’s current superintendent Carol Nelson is grateful for Pasarella’s work.

“Having strong family and community engagement outreach and programs to engage our students and our families across the district is vital to the success of public schools,” Nelson said.

The work never ends

Pasarella’s most recent project is known as the STEM bus, which launched in 2021 and is perhaps the most ambitious of her undertakings to date.

It once again involved meeting a need—in this case finding a way to support STEM teachers with limited resources in the classroom—and bringing together a variety of leaders to make her vision a reality.

That included working with the district transportation department for a new bus; securing an initial $40,000 grant from the education foundation later supplemented by grants Pasarella secured from companies such as T-Mobile, Phillips 66, and Ascend Performance Materials; getting teachers to help develop an internship in which high school students could help younger students navigate the various tools on the bus; hiring a staffer for the bus itself; and securing volunteers who work in STEM fields for guest activities.

The result: a bus with eight stations full of computers, virtual and augmented reality tools, drones, 3D printers, and more that travels across the district for weeklong stops at schools. The stations support lesson plans that align with state standards so it’s an extension of the classroom, Pasarella said.

People keep asking her what’s up next.

But for now, Pasarella is making sure all her initiatives are running smoothly and adjusting where needed—a level of management she considers vital for program longevity.

With the pre-K program, she wishes she could expand access because, at the moment, the grant funding that supports it limits her to about 120 families a year. She is always in need of more male mentors as the number of boys recommended for the mentorship program continues to grow.

When Pasarella speaks about all her work, she emphasizes the role her peers and community members played in getting her ideas off the ground.

She believes all districts can find ways to launch innovative programming.

It’s just a matter of empowering a go-getter and that person then maximizing the assets already present within a given community.

“It’s not just creating the program,” she said. “You have to have a plan in place for what comes next.”

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