Diversity and Democracy

Building Bridges to Higher Education: The American Dream Academy

When I stepped down as president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza in December 2004, I joined Arizona State University (ASU) because President Michael Crow and I share a vision for the future. We and other ASU leaders believe that in addition to teaching and conducting research, a great university has the resources and responsibility to solve problems in our communities, both local and global. Further, we understand that the community has the capacity to help solve problems for itself and for others. Core to this vision is social embeddedness, which we define as interactive and mutually supportive partnerships between the university and the community. These partnerships are bridges between the university and the community, and bridges to the kind of transformation that the American Dream Academy (ADA) was designed to engender.

Over two hundred parents graduated from the American Dream Academy at Creighton Elementary School in 2009. Photo courtesy of the Center for Community Development and Civil Rights.
Over two hundred parents graduated from the American Dream Academy at Creighton Elementary School in 2009. Photo courtesy of the Center for Community Development and Civil Rights.

The American Dream Academy represents a nonprofit model integrated into a large bureaucratic institution. The academy's support staff resides in an entrepreneurial unit at ASU, the Center for Community Development and Civil Rights. The academy plays the innovative role of connecting the parents of marginalized, at-risk youth to a major metropolitan research university that is involved in their communities and in close proximity to their homes. Through affiliation with the university, the program helps parent participants visualize and pursue the long-term goal of having their children acquire college degrees.

Program Elements

The American Dream Academy is a nine-week, school-based program that serves families in the Phoenix, Arizona, region. Parents in the program attend a minimum of four of seven core classes, each lasting ninety minutes, in order to graduate. The program is available to all parents whose children are enrolled in participating Phoenix public and charter schools. The program connects parents, schools, ASU, and the community as partners in the educational and personal development of elementary, middle, and high school students.

American Dream Academy: 
A Nine-Week Program

Week 1:


Week 2:

Home–School–Community Collaboration

Week 3:

Self-esteem and Academic Achievement

Week 4:

Positive Discipline and Academic Achievement

Week 5:

Academic Standards and the Parent-Teacher Conference

Week 6:

Better Understanding of the School System

Week 7:

Becoming Familiar with Requirements for College

Week 8:

Principal’s Forum

Week 9:


All American Dream Academy program partners, including parents, participate in its planning, implementation, and evaluation. Children's attitudes toward education and its importance--or lack thereof--begin early in life. When parents instill the value of education in themselves, they also instill it in their children. We ask all parents who enroll in the academy to commit to the belief that achievement in our society is closely tied to educational success, and to enact that belief by putting into practice knowledge and skills they learn through the academy. The program's first class invites parents to identify areas of focus that are important to their children's successful educational experience, including regular contact with teachers and administrators, involvement as volunteers in schools, and monitoring of their children's performance in key subject areas. 

The academy offers sessions in the morning and evening to accommodate parents' schedules, and we conduct classes in both English and Spanish. Parents learn how to navigate the school system, use effective communication to collaborate with teachers and administrators, create a positive home learning environment, and support a child's emotional and social development. They also learn to be effective advocates who act as partners in their children's educations. Activities like a "Principal's Forum" enable parents to communicate their needs and concerns to school administration, provide an opportunity to interact more effectively with administrators and teachers, and encourage feedback on how the school can better support students.

For many parents, ADA "graduation" ceremonies mark the first time they have graduated from any program. As a tangible reminder that a college education is within the grasp of students from all backgrounds, all children of American Dream Academy graduates receive a symbolic "Certificate of Admission" to ASU signed by President Crow along with specially crafted "Future ASU Student" ID cards.

Program Outcomes

Can parents who have not graduated from high school and do not speak English proficiently--like so many of our program participants--be effective in helping their children succeed in school? Our results to date suggest that they can. The American Dream Academy, in partnership with more than twenty school districts and 104 Phoenix-area schools since October 2006, has provided intensive education and advocacy training designed to empower parents to help their children become successful students and ultimately graduate from high school and college, even when they themselves have not done so. The program has "graduated" nearly 8,400 parents of students and indirectly affected more than twenty thousand low-income, minority youth throughout the greater Phoenix region. We hope that our long-term results will mirror those of California's Parent Institute for Quality Education program, where 92 percent of graduates' children enroll in college (White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans 2005).

To date, most parent participants are Hispanic, just over 85 percent are Spanish monolingual, and nearly all are immigrants to the United States. At some schools, the proportion of Hispanic children is greater than 90 percent. All schools served thus far have been designated as Title I schools, meaning that 40 percent or more of their students live below the poverty line. This student population is at risk of dropping out prior to completing high school, a trend that has been called the "invisible crisis" by the Urban Institute (Orfield et al. 2004) and a "silent epidemic" in a report for the Gates Foundation (Bridgeland, DiIulio, and Morison 2006). Despite having been documented and studied, this exit from the education pipeline continues. By reaching out to parents, the American Dream Academy aspires to stanch this flow.

The program's success depends on extraordinary partnerships, but the front line of the academy is the men and women of the ADA Volunteer Corps. These volunteers come from all walks of life and professions, including ASU students and scholars. ASU's Doran Scholars produce curricula to train parents and volunteers, and faculty collect, analyze, and publish data on the program. Taken together, our volunteers represent more than a dozen nationalities, and most are native speakers of Spanish. They all have a singular commitment to education and volunteer as facilitators who lead weekly workshop discussions, coordinators who manage onsite logistics, or Contact Center agents who reach parents by telephone each week.

The 2009 incoming freshman class of Arizona State University includes the first children of American Dream Academy parents, approximately twenty "Dream Scholars" who are the program's true measure of success. These students prove that empowering parents can create transformative change. For these students, education is the key that opens the door to the American Dream, a unifying ethos that demands each of our best efforts in exchange for the opportunity to reach our highest potential. While this ideal remains elusive for many citizens, colleges and universities can play a role in extending opportunity to underserved communities. By providing hope and necessary tools, we can help parents use their individual and collective strengths to provide their children with the focus, guidance, and support necessary to achieve successful academic careers.

To learn more about the American Dream Academy, visit www.americandreamacademy.org.


Bridgeland, J. M., J. J. DiIulio, Jr., and K. B. Morison. 2006. The silent epidemic: Perspectives of high school dropouts. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises, LLC.

Orfield, G., D. Losen, J. Wald, and C. B. Swanson. 2004. Losing our future: How minority youth are being left behind by the graduation rate crisis. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. 2005. "Pathways to Hispanic Family Learning: Highlighting public and private efforts to meet the education needs of the Hispanic family." Conference program, June 16-17. 

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