Quinones, Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2008
The son of poor laborers in rural Mexico, Ocario Gonzalez
doesn't remember his parents ever helping with his schoolwork.
After struggling with his studies for a few years, Gonzalez left
school at 12.
Now the 42-year-old South Los Angeles factory worker is trying
to break that cycle with his daughter, Carolina.
When she entered Lillian Elementary School last year, 6-year-old
Carolina was ill prepared, Gonzalez said. She knew little about
letters, numbers, shapes or colors -- basic learning tools for
She often cried before school, begging not to go.
Gonzalez and his wife, Maria Arellano, wanted to help her but
didn't know how. But then the couple attended a workshop at the
school designed specifically for immigrant parents.
There, kindergarten teachers taught parents simple ways to help
their children and reinforce what they were learning in class:
tracing numbers in salt on cookie sheets, making letters with
Play-doh or simply conversing with them about their day.
"You're the first teachers of your children," Principal Susan
Ahern told the parents. "We have them six hours a day; you have
them for 18."
Every year thousands of kindergarten- age children of immigrants
like Ocario Gonzalez arrive at schools across Southern
California unprepared. Often, both parents work or they have so
little education themselves that they are at a loss about how to
tutor their children.
"Families bring their kids to school blind, knowing nothing,"
Maria Arellano said. "It's frustrating for the kid. What can
they do? Nothing."
The lack of early parental help, educators say, is a major
reason so many children of immigrants eventually drop out. If
youngsters are unprepared for the basics as they enter school,
they are likely to fall further behind as reading becomes
essential to learning.
By the third and fourth grade, "they no longer want to try,"
said Kionna Hawkins, a Lillian kindergarten teacher who has
taught upper grades in summer school and has seen the struggles
of students who fell behind early. "They're very defeated."
Ahern believes it's a big problem in Southern California, with
its ever increasing population of Mexican and Central American
As school and city officials debate long-term education reforms,
Lillian Elementary, where most of the nearly 700 students are
children of Mexican immigrants, is taking some practical steps
to assist parents in instructing their young children.
If the parents "really want to get them out of the cycle of
poverty," Ahern said, "then they have to support their child's
Ahern is well prepared for the challenge. She once lived in
Mexico, wrote her master's thesis on immigration and is fluent
She also has spent most of her 24-year career in early-childhood
education. Before Lillian, she ran a Los Angeles Unified School
District center for preschool and kindergarten students in South
Gate. "My passion has always been in the primary grades," she
said. "We have to get them early on."
Ahern arrived at Lillian in May.
That month, parents enrolled their kindergartners for the fall.
Ahern and her teachers spent the day testing the children. They
found that half of the 120 new kindergartners didn't know the
basics, including how to write their names.
Parents were given exercises and goals to work their children
toward during the summer. But when school started in September,
the same 60 youngsters were still behind. L.A. Unified policy
for focusing on children who are falling behind doesn't begin
until second grade.
But Ahern believed there was no time to waste. She cobbled
together funding. She invited the parents of the at-risk
students and held two Saturday workshops in October and another
pair of in December. In all, parents of 30 of the children
Teachers gave them workbooks and crayons and suggested how they
might use them to practice letters and numbers with their
children. Parents were taught how to roll Play-doh into letters.
"It's hard for children to learn letters," teacher Leti Flores
told the parents. "It's like us learning Chinese."
Parents were given a list of frequently used words: "here,"
"is," "are," "the" and others. Take a word and look for it with
your children in magazines or on billboards -- be patient, show
enthusiasm, the teachers told them.
In a math session, teacher Gloria Sigala urged parents to use
shoes and socks to illustrate the concepts of pairs. At the
supermarket, Sigala suggested, they should talk to their
children about circles, triangles and rectangles.
The children were then brought in, and parents practiced what
Carolina Gonzalez went to her parents' table. She and her mother
took a cookie sheet with salt on it and traced the number 3.
Arellano gently shook the cookie sheet. The 3 disappeared and
together they traced 4.
"I do think it is our job to teach the parents," Ahern said. "We
have teachers that are awesome and they're still not getting the
results that we want."
But pushing immigrant parents to help their children with
schoolwork isn't always easy. Often, they work long hours and
come home too tired to help.
Some think "if the kids are going to school, that's enough,"
said Leti Orozco, a Mexican immigrant and volunteer at Lillian
whose daughters attend the school.
Teachers say the students whose parents attended Lillian's
limited experiment last fall are more confident and attentive in
Nine of Gloria Sigala's students didn't know letters before the
workshops. Since then, they have learned most, if not all, of
the alphabet. "That's huge," she said.
Meanwhile, Ahern plans more workshops in March to suggest other
exercises parents can do with their children.
Ocario Gonzalez and Maria Arellano say they'll be there.
They said Carolina was excited about what she had learned. She
now pesters her mother to read to her and help with her ABCs. In
the car, they practice by reading letters on billboards and
"We want her to feel secure that we're with her," Maria said,
"and that she has our support."
back to the top ~
back to Breaking News
~ back to