Two new programs will engage audiences, serve diverse local communities in Dallas

Carlos Rodriguez, a dancer with Ballet Folklorico Huehuecoyotl, performed at the kickoff of the Hispanic Families Network at the Walnut Hill Recreation Center in Dallas. (Jim Tuttle/The Dallas Morning News)
Carlos Rodriguez, a dancer with Ballet Folklorico Huehuecoyotl, performed at the kickoff of the Hispanic Families Network at the Walnut Hill Recreation Center in Dallas. (Jim Tuttle/The Dallas Morning News)
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The Dallas Morning News has announced two new initiatives that will help propel audience engagement: One will introduce new digital tools to empower community residents to create content and connect over issues important to them; the second will provide Hispanic parents with media training so they can help inform their communities about early childhood education programs. The programs are supported by $250,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

"We believe these new initiatives will allow us to tap into community information needs and better serve our audiences," said Bob Mong, editor of the Morning News. "They will help us leverage media innovation to address challenges and advance progress in our community."

"Engaging the community in finding new, innovative ways to inform people is vital to ensuring that journalism works to strengthen our democracy," said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism. "With these programs, the Morning News is helping to create a platform for community news-driven solutions, while sparking deeper connections between residents."

Knight support will allow The Dallas Morning News to add new digital engagement tools to its Insiders blogs, created by handpicked community residents who cover topics from special needs and disability to craft beer and LGBT issues. The new tools will be designed to encourage the wider community to connect with resident contributors. Tools include: social networks that will allow people to personalize their interactions with contributors; an online "must list" where insiders can recommend content that would be of interest to their community; and forums where the people can discuss issues and pose questions to insiders. The Morning News staff will support community reporters, in using the tools to create their own unique voice.

A portion of the funding will also go to the Hispanic Families Network, which started as a Morning News pilot program in the city's Bachman Lake neighborhood. The program officially launched Saturday, Nov. 22, at the Walnut Hill Recreation Center in Northwest Dallas.

The goal of the Hispanic Families Network is to use media innovation to engage local Hispanic communities around issues that are important to them. Specifically, the program will train parents in these communities to become citizen journalists; they will report, write, blog and use social media to share information about access to kindergarten and literacy programs with the larger community.

A disproportionate number of Hispanic children in several Dallas neighborhoods are not literate by the completion of third grade, which is a key predictor of future success. In Texas in 2013, 83 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders scored below a proficient reading level, according to a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

"Our goal with this network is to apply innovative citizen-centered journalism techniques to empower and motivate parents to help their children succeed," said Cynthia Pérez-Vadillo, the Hispanic Families Network coordinator for the Morning News. "In addition to Knight Foundation, we've had many partners that have helped us form this network. I am inspired by the commitment of participating parents and the innovative engagement of the participating agencies."

The Hispanic Families Network enlisted Doris Luft Santos Baker, Ph.D., a leading bilingual reading researcher from the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University, to help train parents and evaluate the program.

"Working closely with Hispanic families has helped me realize that often families appear to be disengaged from their children's academic life, not because of a lack of interest, but because of the lack of information about how to best support them academically," said Baker, who has worked with Hispanic families in Oregon and Texas for the last four years.

In addition to the first program in Bachman Lake, a second phase will launch in Pleasant Grove in January 2015, with a third following in Oak Cliff in April. Ongoing training sessions will be offered in each area through August 2015.

Several community partner agencies are also playing a critical role in developing the Hispanic Families Network by identifying mothers who would be good candidates for the program. Agencies include Avance, The Concilio, Catholic Charities of Dallas, The Dallas Public Library and supporters of the Zero to Five Funders Collaborative, including the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas and The Dallas Foundation.

The Morning News and its Spanish-language publication Al Día developed research and training modules for the Hispanic Families Network in partnership with Southern Methodist University. The newspapers also engaged support from other community organizations including Commit!, Communities Foundation of Texas and the University of North Texas.

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