Education at the underpass

What began as an initiative to help immigrant dayworkers find jobs became a community collaboration that’s transformed thousands of lives.

Brigid Galloway

On a cold November morning in 2008, men gathered beneath a stretch of Interstate 95 in Stamford, Connecticut. Huddled together against the frigid wind, they waited for trucks of potential employers to arrive. Most spoke only Spanish and had little formal education. Even among skilled laborers, with the flagging housing market and troubled economy, often there weren’t enough jobs to go around.

Every day thousands of commuters sped along I-95 absorbed in their own concerns. Some looked on the dayworkers with fear or contempt. To them, these men were displaced immigrants who might be vagrants and perhaps threatening. Mike Meyer and other Stamford community leaders, including Kathleen Walsh, Lucas Romero, Bruce Koe and Catalina Horak, saw something very different. These men were part of a growing population of immigrants who wanted more than just a day job. They saw these men as potentially vital members of the community who needed help with other essentials such as learning English, gaining legal guidance, and developing coping skills in their new community.

For this group of dedicated community members, the problem felt personal. Mike Meyer’s family immigrated from South America decades before, and he identified with the difficulties of assimilating into a new country. He also had a unique professional interest. In his role as Stamford Public Schools’ director of family and community engagement, he witnessed the impact homelessness and unemployment had on a student’s overall educational experience. He recognized the shift in demographics within the school system.

“Spanish-speaking Central American students is our fastest growing demographic,” he says. “Often among these families there was a paper trail that suggested unusual living circumstances. For example, one person might rent a single room in an effort to house an entire family.”

Assessing real needs

Catalina Horak, who immigrated to the US from Colombia, was already working to help recent immigrants find the resources they needed to thrive in their new community. “Day workers were very vulnerable,” Horak says. “They were considered the most vulnerable. We wanted a program for them from the beginning.”  

In 2009, Horak, Meyer, and others brought together leaders from area hospitals, city government, and education along with dayworkers and immigrant business owners to conduct a needs assessment. Slowly, they began to uncover some very tangible reasons why existing immigrant services were not effective. For example, English as Second Language (ESL) programs were not typically offered at times when working adults could attend. When there were weekend courses, they didn’t provide needed child care. Also, these classes taught general language skills but didn’t consider how the students would apply English in their daily lives.

The task force wanted to provide programs that filled these gaps, and yet there were challenges inherent in starting a new initiative at that time. “This was after the recession when there was great competition for funding,” Horak says. “We wanted to collaborate, not compete, so we had to demonstrate that we had deep expertise in working with immigrants.”

After studying models already in place in similar communities, the task force founded an affiliate of Neighbors Link, a Westchester, NY-based organization focused on immigrant needs. (It would later be renamed Building One Community or “B1C”.) The doors of the new facility opened in 2011 with Horak as executive director.

Building one community

The new organization offered basic programs such as ESL classes but with a results-based framework. Based on the input they received from the immigrant community, they created vocational ESL courses with essential context for the classes. If the class participants were cleaning houses, doing construction work, or working in a nursing home, they could take courses tailored to the vocabulary most needed in those professions.   

From the beginning, B1C measured the outcome of its programs. It recorded the number of people taking ESL classes and student retention rates and conducted surveys to find out what classes were really helping immigrant participants become engaged in the community. Job placement was one of the big measurements. “There were benchmarks for dayworkers,” Horak says. “We tracked job training, job placement, and social mobility. We found the more integrated the day workers were in the community, the more comfortable they felt coming to B1C for other resources.”

As participants became comfortable using B1C’s services, their programs grew to include job skills training, legal services, help with filling out job applications, assistance with driver’s license applications and more.

“B1C facilitates the connection and shares experiences so existing organizations can tailor their program to help immigrants succeed.”  
Catalina Horak

A ripple effect

Along the way, some of the participants in the B1C programs started bringing their children’s report cards into the BIC center for translation or to ask for help with their child’s homework. “We started connecting the dots and realized the schools didn’t provide translators,” Horak says. “We started working with the schools to develop a deeper understanding of the problem.” 

The schools in Stamford were integrated, but many children of immigrants rode the bus five miles to school. The distance was prohibitive for parents who didn’t have their own transportation. To combat this problem, B1C partnered with the schools and began to host events at their center and developed a program to teach parents in their new journey understanding the educational system in the US, while developing their leadership potential and strengthening their voices.

“If you grew up in a village in Guatemala you don’t understand American report cards or standardized test scores,” Horak says. “When the parents started recognizing the expectations, they intrinsically knew that they had to do something about it.”

With tools and confidence to advocate for their children and a growing understanding of their own immigrant experience, parents joined POWER, a new parent organizing program launched by B1C in 2015. The program immediately increased overall communication between school administrators and Latino parents. New measures were initiated by parents who once felt they didn’t have a voice. “Parents organized themselves and began identifying resources that would be good for their children,” Meyer says. “The POWER Parents are empowered to advocate for their own children — and all the children of Stamford.”  

With guidance from Building One Community, the POWER parents learned about a national program called Springboard that addressed literacy needs in public schools. The B1C parents formed a committee. They interviewed the Springboard founder and decided they wanted to bring the program to Stamford. “Power Parents” presented Springboard to the associate superintendent of schools and requested a pilot program be conducted in the Stamford school system. The school system is planning to start a pilot program with 240 students in the summer of 2019.

Continuing success

It’s been 10 years since Mike Meyer noticed the day worker sat the underpass. Today, B1C serves almost 3,000 immigrant clients each year through ESL classes, job placement and training, and support programs for legal immigration issues, health, tax, parenting and school engagement. In 2018 alone, 582 immigrant participants made more than $400,000 in jobs obtained through B1C services. 81% of clients surveyed report increased capability navigating community resources and systems.

B1C has become the go-to organization within the community for any initiative that seeks to help Stamford immigrants. They continue to collaborate with other agencies who are trying to start or expand immigrant services. Three years ago, Norwalk Community College and B1C partnered and found a way to tailor a program for those who didn’t have a high school diploma. Now, there is a Home Health Aide certificate program through the college.

“The community wants to provide better opportunities for our immigrants, but they don’t always know how,” Horak says. “B1C facilitates the connection and shares experiences so existing organizations can tailor their programs to help immigrants succeed.”

Collaboration at-a-glance

The collaborative: Building One Community

The needed action: Help immigrants finds sustainable employment options

The challenge: Immigrants who relied on a patchwork of services in a system that didn’t fully understand their needs – and those who went without any help at all – discovered a place oriented to their needs

The game-changers: Taking the time to conduct needs assessments and involving people within the community who they were trying to help in the planning stages of the collaboration

The outcome: Almost 3,000 immigrant clients served each year. In 2018 alone, 582 immigrant participants made more than $400,000 in jobs obtained through B1C services. 81% of clients surveyed reporting increased capability navigating community resources and systems

Big wins: Parents who benefited from B1C services are now advocating for new programs to improve the lives, and educational outcomes, of their children

Lessons learned: 1) Don’t compete against existing programs, complement them with expertise they don’t possess. 2) Address core problems such as joblessness and language barriers by creating educational programs tailored to the needs of program participants. 3) Provide training and encouragement for parents to become involved in the lives of their children and advocate for their educational needs.