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American Dream Academy grows up, out

April 22, 2010

More than 100 students from Central High School recently graduated from the American Dream Academy, which was a first for the program, as it has focused solely on parents in the past.

“We want to move from being a parent program to a program for the whole family,” said Maria Luisa Ramos, director of the American Dream Academy. “Imagine that kind of empowerment. We’re working with the parents and now we’re working with their children. And when they’re finished with the program, they all know what it takes and how to prepare themselves for the university.

“But what’s even more important is that now they know – the parents and the children – they know they can do it.”

The American Dream Academy provides Valley parents with the tools they need to help their child navigate the school system and succeed in future educational endeavors. Begun in the fall of 2006, the academy has partnered with 41 Valley schools, graduated 11,732 parents, and helped the lives of more than 30,000 children. 

“Our experience has been incredible,” said Julio Cesar Ramirez, who graduated from the program at Central High School with his child. “It’s helped us both understand what it takes to graduate from high school, get accepted at a university, and continue on the road toward achieving the American dream.”

Ramirez goes on to say that the program is more than just academics – it addresses a variety of challenges families face when trying to help their child succeed in school.

“Now I have another tool to motivate my children and help them reach their goals. These classes have improved communication with my children, and given me the chance to be a better father and a better human being.”

Housed within ASU, the American Dream Academy is one of many community-based programs exemplifying "social embeddedness" at the university.

“We are a part of ASU and part of what makes a New American University,” Luisa Ramos said. “We’re building bridges between the community and the university. When we go into some of these schools … kids and parents don’t even know what ASU is. And those who do know, don’t really believe that we care about them. They’ve never seen a university reaching out to them, telling them, ‘here, this is what you can do, how you succeed, we’re here for you.’

“A large part of ASU’s philosophy is the belief that all children are capable of a higher education," Luisa Ramos said. "If you empower these kids and their parents, they’re going to be able to make it. You can transform people just by giving them information. We don’t have to push them. We just give them the tools they need and there is transformation. It’s amazing.”

A key element to the program is its collaboration with the schools, its principals, teachers and communities. There is an understanding that working together means a mutual respect and a balance between the ASU scholarship that makes the program so powerful and the unique knowledge each community brings to the relationship.

“Before I even meet with the principals, I ‘take a walk’ in the communities, so to speak,” Luisa Ramos says. “I get into their story. I talk to people. I do my best to see how it is. It’s not about going in there and talking about all the great things we can do. If you go in with only your own ideas and you don’t listen to the community, very quickly, they will tell you, no. 

“We don’t tell them we know all about what’s happening in this school, in this community and we know what to do about it. No. We work together. We work it out. And this takes time, and a lot of work.”

The time and work are paying off with the respect and positive reputation the program is building in the Valley.

“I felt the program was an incredible success and we’d like it to continue,” said Paul Ritz, principal of Frye Elementary School in Chandler, AZ where 119 parents graduated from the program last October. “Parents understood their responsibility and realized that education is life-long. The tie-in with university education was extremely powerful. It seems attainable to them now. The dream is alive, and the parents realized it.”

Luisa Ramos stresses that a large part of this success is the close, personal attention given to each parent and each child in schools partnered with the American Dream Academy.

“Every person who wants to be a part of this program, we tell them, this is not a job. It’s a way of life, a way of living. My daughter’s a part of it. We have entire families a part of it. You’re not just a facilitator who goes to a school once a week. You’re part of their family. They make you part of their family. It’s just incredible.”

The program partnered with 37 schools during the 2009-2010 school year. But that number will drop to 20 as state-wide budget cuts take their toll.

Luisa Ramos is optimistic, however.

“We need to do more," Luisa Ramos said. "It’s not just about the number of schools we have, or the number of graduates. It’s about doing more for our communities and creating a stronger presence and connection to ASU."

So what’s in store for the future of the American Dream Academy?

“With an 84 percent retention rate, we’re going to need a place for these kids when they come to ASU," Luisa Ramos said. "They need a home here, so we’re working on creating a house for them – the Dream Scholars at ASU. The kids will have a place where they’ll feel they belong, and the parents will get information on how the university works. It’s very different from high school. 

“And even beyond the university? We’re thinking, how do we prepare our students for the workforce? There is much more the American Dream Academy can do for our communities.  And much more the communities have to teach us. We have big dreams, big expectations.”


Samantha Leigh Miller
University Initiatives Fellow