How One English Learner's Early Literacy Success Is Changing the Destiny of Thousands


When Sylvia Acevedo's mother immigrated from Mexico and enrolled her in a neighborhood Head Start program several decades ago, little did she know that her daughter would one day earn an appointment from President Barack Obama…or become a rocket scientist, then a successful executive at multiple Fortune 100 Companies…and finally go on to develop programs to help thousands of early learners who started out just like her.

Yet Acevedo has done all these things. She has served as Commissioner on the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics; worked on the Voyager mission's fly-by of Jupiter for the Jet Propulsion Labs; and worked in management for Dell, IBM, and Apple—to name a few of her impressive career endeavors. Today she also serves as interim CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, helping a new generation of young girls achieve success.

And to What Does She Credit Her Own Success in Life?

Acevedo believes the focus on early literacy in her childhood made all the difference. It was her Head Start teacher who noticed that she preferred books to drawing or crafts, so she encouraged Sylvia to read books at home with her mother and talk about the stories at show-and-tell. That teacher took many of the small steps that Acevedo considers key to beginning any early literacy or family engagement program, such as:

  1. Encouraging the child's parents to get (and stay) involved
  2. Building on the child's strengths and interests
  3. Instilling reading confidence and the urge to access more books
  4. Introducing families to institutions like libraries that can open up more doors.

Involvement in Girl Scouts was also a catalyst for Acevedo's success. "I became an engineer and rocket scientist by training, thanks to my Girl Scout leader who saw me looking at the stars one night and joined me to point out the constellations, the systems, in the night sky," she says. Her Girl Scouts CEO patch includes many symbols from her career, including the symbol for pi, which holds special significance, as this story recounts:

The symbol for pi, harkens to earning my sewing badge by making a gym bag. My mother advised me that she had never seen a pattern for a gym bag, but I told her that it was ok, I had done the math. She looked at me quizzically as I explained the drawings and the math I had done to figure out how much material I needed. For the round ends, I had calculated the circumference, using the equation of 2 Pi R. My mother, not knowing that pi was a math symbol and not just a dessert, smiled at me as she said, 'I'm glad you like math, Mija.'

Firsthand Experience Benefits New Generations of English Learners

In her current work with English learner families, Acevedo has discovered some interesting—and often unexpected—cultural differences in how parents view Pre–K readiness. Acevedo points out that it's important to truly understand what's behind these cultural differences in order to start an appropriate, nonthreatening dialogue with families on what the expectations are in the American education system. For example:

  1. In other cultures, high school graduation may not be considered a major milestone; yet a student's graduation year is a focus from very early on in the American education system.
  2. Families may not understand that they are expected to be involved in the American school system—and often don't know the importance placed on their child's regular attendance.
  3. The hardest-to-reach families may not have had the opportunity to complete formal education or might have limited access to healthcare and eyeglasses—things that can affect their ability to support their child, or can impede the child's own learning.
  4. Some families new to the country may be hesitant to use their native language with their child—which often means the child enters school with very little language at all.

These are only a few of myriad scenarios that can affect a young English learner entering the American school system. In response, Acevedo offers a wealth of commonsense and culturally sensitive approaches to help educators ensure success for these students and their families. Here are just a few:

  1. Make sure that families feel welcome at school! Have translators available and reach them in their native languages if necessary. Use plenty of pictures in print communications to make them easier to understand.
  2. Provide clarity for parents on the resources that are available to them, both in school and in the community—introduce them to libraries, nonprofits, churches, and Y's, which may have supportive programs and free classes.
  3. Make the topic of education relevant to English learner families by showing how their involvement can improve their entire family's circumstances.