As the director of family and community engagement for the Alvin Independent school district in Texas, Ana Pasarella understands the importance of bringing together adults from across the district and local community to ensure all students have access to high-quality academic opportunities. She has launched several initiatives, all geared toward meeting students’ needs and maximizing community assets, including a summer book bus that meets students in their neighborhoods; a bus full of science, technology, engineering, and math tools that support teachers’ lesson plans; a mentorship program for high school students, and more.
Pasarella, a 2024 EdWeek Leaders To Learn From honoree, spoke to Education Week about how she can get so many costly projects off the ground and the significance of this work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When deciding on what districtwide initiatives or programs to launch, where can you find the best ideas?
I was a classroom teacher, so my advice would be to talk to teachers and see what are the needs that teachers see from their perspective, from the students that they work with.
All these district leaders might be working on curriculum, but they might have been out of the classroom for a long time. So they’re not seeing the needs that are outside of the classroom. District leadership has to go and sit down with teachers and find out from teachers and from the parents what are the needs that the students have. Because sometimes you don’t see it if you’re in an office in the [administration] building, dealing with teacher professional development trying to help the teachers and the principals so that they can support the students in the schools, but then you start focusing only on that.
Start with maybe having a focus group with the teachers. My idea for the book bus was because I saw how much my students were regressing during the summer.
How do you get individuals to collaborate on a program?
The first one will be hard because you have to convince people.
One of my number one recommendations for every school district is if you have an Education Foundation [nonprofit parent teacher organization] in your district, work with them, because they’re the ones that are going to be able to give you the start money or help you find the start money. Once you have the money to start the project with, then you can go to other people, to other companies, write other grants, and say well, I’m not starting this from zero. I have this much ready to go.
Once you have the support to do the first program, just make it right [and] make it work. See it through all the phases. You need to start the process [and] find the right people. And then once you get started and make it happen, don’t just turn it over to somebody else and forget about it. Because the person that you turn it over to might not have the passion that you have, and they might not do anything with it. And if they don’t do anything with it, that’s it, it dies right there.
But if you make it through the first one, and you make it very successful, then for the second one, you’ll already have the support.
How do you ensure a program succeeds beyond its launch?
It’s kind of like when you have a kid and you let them go, but you’re always watching to make sure that they’re OK.
I have requested more help, for example for the STEM bus, [so] they hired a STEM bus specialist.
My involvement with the STEM bus [right now], I will say that it’s probably 30 percent of everything that is happening with the STEM bus, but I’m there. I can talk to [the specialist] anytime and I know where it’s going and I know the problems that she’s having. So when she’s having some kind of challenge, I help her solve the challenge or I send her to the right person to help her.
With the mentoring program, I do the main part of recruiting the mentors and training the mentors, but then I rely a lot on the [school] counselors. I couldn’t do this on my own without the counselors.
You have a person [who] oversees the program, but then you find the right people to help you. You need to stay involved; don’t just launch the program and go away. Stay involved, but also find the right people that will make your job easier, and that will help you make it successful as well.
What are some obstacles to keep in mind, and how can you overcome them?
One of the main ones is the budget. All these programs have costs.
When you write grants, just make sure that they are grants that have the opportunity [for you] to reapply. And if you have the opportunity to do a report at the end of the year, do the report correctly. I lost a grant because I failed to do the report at the end of the year, I did it late, and then I missed the opportunity to reapply for the grant. So I learned my lesson.
Try to find grants or money that is within your district that can be used for the programs that you are trying to implement, for example, Title I, Title IV [federal dollars that support schools with students from low-income families and students’ academic achievement such as improving the use of technology for academic achievement]. Those are federal grants that come to the district, and sometimes [the district leaders] don’t know where to spend this money.
The Education Foundation, they’re always looking for how to support programs and teachers and, and most of the time, they go to the schools and to the teachers. But what I have heard from my Education Foundation is they’re always looking for these big programs that they can show to the community. So two things happen. They get more money that will help them support smaller programs, but they also get more money for these big programs as well.
And collaboration. Don’t ever think that even if you’re Superwoman or Superman , that you can do all this by yourself. You need to collaborate with the right people in the district.