Sal Güereña, a founder of Padres Unidos, says there is no time to waste when it comes to keeping all students progressing steadily toward graduation and careers. “The issues have to be addressed at the beginning of preschool because that’s when the achievement gap begins, before the age of 4 years old,” he says.  (Valorie Smith / Noozhawk photo)

“A small act can have a huge impact,” said Salvador Güereña, whose extensive volunteer work as an educational advocate in the local schools is most definitely having an impact.

“We all have the same goal: we want a superb education for our children,” he added.

Güereña, a Santa Barbara native who was an English language learner as a child, is a founder of Padres Unidos, which advocates for equity in education by seeking to inform and empower parents so they can help close the achievement gap between white and Latino students. The nonprofit organization, founded in 2008, also promotes academic, social and emotional development.

Noting that Spanish-speaking Latino parents traditionally have not been as involved at their children’s schools, Güereña said Padres Unidos uses parents to reach other parents and helps them learn how to navigate the school system and become part of the shared governance structures.

“We wanted to address that from the side of the parents, to encourage them, to show them, to equip them, to train them, to inspire them,” he said.

Children are another emphasis.

“The bulk of English learners in the school system are actually conversant in English,” Güereña explained. “They have what’s considered basic interpersonal communication skills in English, but they lack … cognitive academic language skills. That is what is keeping a lot of them from progressing.

“They have conversational English, so oftentimes the teacher takes that as a miscue that they are actually proficient, but they’re not. They lack the English academic ability to be able to succeed in school, and that academic language is what propels all the other students, what makes us all successful in society.

“That’s what gives us good jobs, good careers … so there is a disconnect with these kids where you don’t have that skill level present as they are proceeding through school.”

Although these students generally hold steady through elementary school, Güereña said their progress starts to fray by the time they get into junior high. And by the time they’re in high school, he adds, it’s almost too late — even though intervention programs have been instituted there to assist them.

“The issues have to be addressed at the beginning of preschool because that’s when the achievement gap begins, before the age of 4 years old,” he said. “That’s why you have so many foundations devoting their resources to helping develop a comprehensive approach from cradle to career.”

Padres Unidos works closely with these other organizations and is part of the Latino Achievement Collaborative, which came together in 2010 to focus on closing achievement gaps at McKinley Elementary, Santa Barbara Junior High and Dos Pueblos High schools in the Santa Barbara Unified School District.

McKinley School, 350 Loma Alta Drive, was just released from program improvement status, thanks to large increases in its standardized test scores. It is only the second elementary school in Santa Barbara County to have the classification dismissed.

Güereña is cheered by the achievements at McKinley and other schools, especially in light of diminished education funding.

“We are seeing some really phenomenal gains in some of the schools and incremental gains in a lot of the schools, so we are moving forward,” he said. “That gives us a sense of hope and an expectation that we can really accomplish a lot in the future.”

His enthusiasm and passion for education are palpable.

“Everybody needs to be on the same page — students, parents, teachers, administrators, counselors and the community at large,” Güereña said. “That is where I focus my energy in working with Spanish-speaking parents to help them understand their unique role and help to close their student achievement gap.

“But I also want to help and encourage them … to look beyond our own children.”

Güereña and his wife, Linda, the bilingual student community resources liaison at Dos Pueblos High, have two sons: David, a doctoral student in soil studies at Cornell University, and Alex, a student at SBCC. He is an avid bicyclist and power walker and the couple frequently can be found at Brophy Brothers, one of their favorite places to eat.

“We love good food, we love good cooking; it’s always been a big part of our lives,” he said.

Despite keeping busy with his family and his full-time job as director of the California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives at UCSB’s Davidson Library, where he has served since 1983, Güereña also finds time to serve as a board member of the Santa Barbara Education Foundation.

“One of the reasons that I got involved in that foundation is that I realized we have a tremendous potential in our community to support our local schools and I believe that that potential has not been fully realized,” he said.

“We have teachers who are getting pink-slipped every year,” he continued. “It’s unacceptable, and I think that we all know that we cannot rely on the state of California for education funding for our local schools to the point where they are going to be stable, at least not in the near future …

“I think that we have it in our community to help backfill those state cuts,” he said.

Güereña, who did his undergraduate work at Westmont College and his graduate studies at the University of Arizona, says that at its root his passion for education is about social justice, and “how important it is that we develop a culture where we respect one another, that we communicate in a healthy way and that we’re committed to a more just society where everyone has the same opportunities.”

“We have options here,” he said. “We have a very wealthy community and I think even with the economic crisis that we are still under, we are under-fulfilling our potential.”

Click here for more information on Padres Unidos. Click here for more information on the Santa Barbara Education Foundation.

Noozhawk contributing writer Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at Follow her on Twitter: @LeslieDinaberg.