When the "four white girls" walked into a largely Latino school in downtown San Jose school the first time, the wary Spanish-speaking parents didn't know what to think of the prim, middle-class, college-educated women who wanted to help them in practical, new ways.
"They spoke only English, and I speak only Spanish," said Beatriz Perez, a Mexican immigrant with one child attending Washington Elementary. "I thought: How is this going to work?"
Her uneasy feeling was mutual.
"I was nervous," said Stacy Muccino. "I mean, there we were ... walking into their school and their lives. What could they be thinking of us?"
Three years later,"las gueras" are still regularly going to Washington Elementary, and the eager relationships between the women and the school's parents has grown from three parents up to 50 on a regular basis.
"It's spectacular," said Washington school mom Gloria Presas of the what is formally known as the Collaborative Community Program. "I feel so much better and confident as a parent, and my kids are doing better in school, too."
The program works on a simple but critical counseling principle: Low-income parents value education, but their daily lives are fraught with "multiple stress factors." Often they are working two or more jobs to pay the rent, feed and clothe their children, and pay the medical bills without health insurance. Many are single parents. There's fending off street gangs and dealing with their own exhaustion, anxiety or depression.
Eventually, the stresses build up and something gives. Often they end up feeling unequipped to guide their children through school and into college.
"Our approach is: These women are smart," said Felice Lopiccolo, who was a tech executive before joining the program. "They have knowledge. It just needs to be organized and focused. They know their children better than anyone."
Stacy Muccino was a counseling intern in schools several years ago when she became appalled by how Spanish-speaking students who failed basic reading and writing in English were being promoted.
"They were just being pushed along," Muccino said. "In most schools they were being treated unfairly."
So Muccino decided to become an educational "advocate" and recruited two other college interns -- Rochelle Hall and Elizabeth Basile -- for the same purpose. These were not young female students but mature women and mothers starting first or second, professional careers.
Lopiccolo, whose son attended school with Muccino's son, brought business savvy from her high-tech background to the program aimed at Latino parents.
The four women decided against lecturing parents. Instead, they asked them what they needed to know to help their children succeed in school, thus building on what the women had already learned on their own. The San Jose Unified School District officials liked what they heard and recommended a pilot program at an ideal test ground: Washington Elementary. At the school:
On the plus side, the school had welcomed outside help from civic and community groups before. But there was a catch: The district could not pay the women who nonetheless put in time, effort and energy for three academic terms on their own dime.
Happily, the school moms came up with a surprisingly practical list of what they wanted to help themselves and their families, including how to cook healthy meals and deal with anxiety, depression and domestic violence. They also wanted to know how to talk to teachers and school officials with confidence when their children had learning or behavioral problems.
Since 2009, on two Fridays a month, happy parents and the dedicated "las gueras" gather in a large circle with an interpreter and listen to invited experts. Two other times a month they meet at the a city library next door for round-table discussions on school matters.
At one seminar recently, Dr. Min Yi, a no-nonsense nutritionist at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, talked about women's health issues and childhood nutrition, topics the parents had chosen. Sitting in a circle, Yi offered some blunt advice: No more sugary soft drinks. Teach the kids to drink and savor simple water. You don't have to buy expensive, organically farmed food to cook healthy meals, or join a gym to lose weight. Neighborhood clinics can treat depression.
A few days later, the parents and advocates gathered again to explore how to approach teachers and school officials with confidence. The discussion was led by Muccino, a tall and elegant blonde who spoke firmly but without talking down to the group.
"They have a sense of humanity, and they put us on the same level as them," said Arcelia Ramirez. "That's what I like about them."
After only three years, it's hard to measure the program's success through test scores and other academic measures. For now, Basile and Lopiccolo say they will track the progress of kids that pass through the program and they note its growing popularity as one measure of success. The parents have their own measurement. "Las gueras" stayed the course despite the initial awkwardness and frustrations over language.
"They just kept coming back," said Rocio Malagon, who has one child at the school. "Nothing was going to dissuade them. I saw them as people who wanted to help the community, and weren't going to let anything stop them."
Also, the program recently became a nonprofit organization, allowing it to raise funding, pay salaries and branch out to other schools. School mom Ruth Pedraza said the four advocates have already proved themselves.
"They make us feel," noted Pedraza, "like we are not alone in this country."