When David Cárdenas was 14 years old, his father moved the entire family from the Imperial Valley to the Fowler area.
“Why are we here?” Cárdenas, the oldest of seven children, asked his father. “We have no grandparents, no uncles, no cousins here.”
His father responded, “You know David, in the Imperial Valley all my life I’ve worked with the cortito (short-handed hoe). You have to bend down and work hard all day. I didn’t want that for you guys.
“Here in Fresno County, you pick grapes standing. You pick fruit standing, not bending down like myself.”
Cárdenas had something to say about that.
“Dad, who says we’re going to be working in the fields all the time? You always told us to go to school and get an education.”
Today, the 65-year-old Cárdenas is still talking education, especially for children around 3½ to 4 years of age who haven’t started kindergarten. The Fowler mayor is recruiting families to participate in an innovative “kindergarten readiness program” that is free and is done online.
The Utah-based Waterford Upstart will provide participants with a Chromebook, a personal coach and internet access for the family.
“The only obligation is that the parents sit with the kids 15-to-20 minutes Monday through Friday,” said Cárdenas. “Statistics show that kids who take these classes are way, way ahead of kids who don’t.”
In the end, Cárdenas, who has operated an auto repair shop since 1991, is visiting all corners of the city of 6,500 residents in search of families who qualify for the program.
He’ll walk up to a family and inquire about the age of their children. He has visited churches and businesses. He drops off fliers. He has used the city’s website to promote the program.
On Saturday (July 20), he will attend an informational forum from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Fowler Senior Citizen Center, 108 N 3rd St.
The program is available in English and Spanish.
“We love our kids. We want our kids to be successful,” said Cárdenas. “My mom and dad used to tell us, ‘Go to school and get your education. No one can take that away from you.’”
Cárdenas said anyone qualifies for the program, regardless of income, race, language or religion.
His major problem in recruiting families, he said, is that most don’t believe such a program is free.
“I tell them that if they get charged for something, come and tell me and I’ll pay for it,” said Cárdenas. “I know I won’t be paying because it is free.”
Two months ago, Cárdenas got a phone call from Brenda Quintana, a former Fowler resident. She informed him about the pilot program that has already been underway in more than 15 states but not in California.
After a couple of meetings, Cárdenas was sold.
Waterford Upstart has gotten a grant from Ted’s Audacious Project to fund its program for any 3-, 4- and 5-year-old in Fresno County. Fowler is among several rural cities that have been targeted in an effort to enroll 200 children in the program.
Organizers are also looking at Kings and Madera counties.
The total investment is between $350,000 and $400,000.
Waterford has helped more than 60,000 families since it started in 2009. Its data shows its students performing far above the average student in first through third grades.
“I have worked very hard on this because of the benefits it provides for families,” said Cárdenas, who spent six years in night school to earn his diploma from Fowler High School at the age of 24.
Cárdenas reasons that better-prepared students will become more successful in school, and in turn become more productive members of the community.
“Invest in your children’s education today. Don’t shortchange your son or your daughter,” Cárdenas tells parents. “I’m pushing hard because I know this is a great opportunity.”