The time for children to learn is now

Adriana Sanchez

Lois Vermilya, director of UNM Family Development ProgramDevelop education models to help our children learn in the future? No way, says Lois Vermilya, director of the University of New Mexico’s Family Development Program.

“We need to stop talking about children in the future tense, because their time to learn is now,” she says.

It is important to sit next to children and ask them directly what their needs are, she says.

“I want to hear what children are talking about and what they think is possible,” Vermilya says. “We must embrace the idea of following a child’s lead, and, as a community, become stewards for their rights.”

She should know.

Thirty years of grassroots education struggles have taken her around the nation and the world.

She runs the Family Development Program out of the university’s School of Education with the goal of transforming communities through action that that emerges from dialogue between families, teachers and students. Vermilya’s program has helped communities use dialogue to address challenges that range from early childhood education issues to creating partnerships between families and teachers, to offering programs encouraging mothers to breast-feed their children.

Created in 1985 through a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation to create a unique preschool in the South Broadway community of Albuquerque, the Family Development Program still operates under the motto of its founder, Maria Chavez: “When as educators we expect to make profound changes in our students' lives, we haven’t the right to begin without their parents at our side.”

This kind of commitment to education and families is especially important here. In 2012, New Mexico ranked 46th out of 50 states on K-12 achievement, according to Education Week’s annual report card.

Long aware of challenges facing New Mexico’s children, Vermilya uses a variety of strategies for educating young people, including the creative use of dialogue that leads to community change.

In 2010, the Family Development Program joined Strong Starts for Children, a collaboration between Everyday Democracy, a Connecticut-based organization promoting social change through dialogue and action, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, five Albuquerque-area communities to work for the success of young children.

Over the course of the 18-month program, Everyday Democracy worked closely with the Family Development Program and other groups throughout New Mexico to find ways to get people to talk, work, and take action together on issues related to early childhood development.

Vermilya’s connections to Everyday Democracy go back to the 1990s when she participated in Albuquerque dialogue program and helped train and facilitate others in using dialogue. Her return to Everyday Democracy’s tools 20 years produced positive outcomes.

“The really careful guided structure that Everyday Democracy has built into the Strong Starts guide is enabling us to locate facilitators and build leadership skills for facilitators in local neighborhoods,” said Vermilya. “We can really count on the thoughtful work, the reputation, and Everyday Democracy’s history for the structure of the guide we use with the community, but at the same time, we have the freedom to adapt it to our needs and make it our own.”

Currently, the Family Development Program is expanding its use of dialogue to address early education issues to additional communities throughout Albuquerque. Vermilya is convinced that the program, apart from educating communities, is also changing its participants’ lives by giving them a voice.

“The untold story that we witness every time the community meets to dialogue is one of renewal,” she says. “Moreover, how does renewal keep all of us going?  It gives hope to all the people that want to change conditions for children and their families in just and equitable ways.”

December 20, 2013

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