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Immigrant Parents Finding a Voice
Schools Encourage More Participation
by Elaine Rivera, Washington Post, May 28, 2003
For more articles like this visit http://www.bridges4kids.org.

 
When Gloria Ponciano moved from her native Guatemala to Fairfax County a decade ago, she received a letter from the public school where she had just enrolled her children.

"It said, 'You are welcome to the PTA.' I didn't know what the PTA was," Ponciano recalled. "I went to look for it in the dictionary, and it wasn't there."

Once she learned what a parent-teacher association was, Ponciano became active in her children's schools, and she now volunteers at the school district's family learning center, introducing immigrant parents to a novelty of the U.S. educational system: parental participation.

As schools try to meet state achievement mandates and the requirements of the new federal No Child Left Behind law, they are emphasizing parents as key factors in children's academic success. Increasingly, the region's school districts are developing innovative programs -- from culturally specific booklets in Montgomery County to breakfast gatherings in Arlington -- to encourage immigrants to take an active role in their children's education.

Districts have stopped waiting for the parents to join in and, not content just to encourage them, have started recruiting. The aim is to get "all families to do all things," said Joyce L. Epstein, director of Johns Hopkins University's Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships.

"Almost every school system is becoming more diverse," Epstein said. "Schools are becoming more sensitive to the need to include every family." The center has established a national network to help school districts develop activities for parents that will improve their children's performance. In the past seven years, the number of districts nationwide that have sought the center's help has risen from 200 to 900, Epstein said.

To help immigrant parents feel welcome and motivated, school staffs must first address the obvious barriers, such as language and cultural differences, before tackling the most subtle ones, such as a fear of challenging authority that makes them reluctant to ask basic questions: How do you read a report card? What is a parent-teacher conference for?

"When we ask Hispanic parents to come to school and participate in the decision-making process, some of them look at each other and say, 'You're asking me my opinion about something you're the expert on?' " said Miguel Ley, assistant principal at Arlington's Barcroft Elementary School, where monthly meetings for Latino parents are conducted in Spanish. One of the most common questions is about parental consent forms for field trips.

"They ask me, 'If you think it's good for my child, why do you need permission?' " Ley said. "Many of them never lived in a democracy, and everything has been dictated to them."

Kim Chi, who emigrated from Vietnam nearly 30 years ago and now volunteers at Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences in Fairfax County, said that was her experience, as well. In her native country, she said, "The parents listen to the teacher's word a lot."

At Bailey's, Chi works with Maria Demarest, a parent liaison who runs a family center in a trailer behind the school. One recent afternoon, Demarest, her half-eaten lunch on her desk, juggled several questions from parents who trickled steadily through the door.

Felicita Morales wanted to know what Field Day was and why her signature was required before her 6-year-old daughter could participate. "It's a day where they get to play all day long," Demarest explained in Spanish. "They have sack races and water games."

Morales also wanted to enroll her 11-year-old son in summer school and had questions about the application. She wouldn't have dared come to school, she said, if the volunteers hadn't been there.

"I don't understand English -- we couldn't deal with the school if they were not here," Morales said. "This trailer is a blessing."

Jong Ho, a parent liaison at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Fairfax, said a familiar language is a great icebreaker for Asian immigrants as well. "When they find out there is a parent liaison available, they call with all kinds of questions, and they become more involved in the school."

Another barrier is time. Many schools are trying harder to accommodate the schedules of immigrant parents, many of whom work more than one job.

At Barrett Elementary School in Arlington, Principal Theresa Bratt runs a weekly breakfast program and a monthly evening library program in which teachers and volunteers show parents how to help their children with homework. Parents who don't read English are encouraged to have their children read to them. The evenings also include arts and crafts projects that will be useful in helping their children study or teachers prepare classrooms.

The morning breakfast program, held every Friday, is a social hour with a purpose. Parents "sit at tables and drink coffee and speak to one another, and it's a nice place for them to talk about their kids' issues," Bratt said. The aim is to make them feel comfortable volunteering their time.

At one recent breakfast, about a dozen parents helped school aides put together work folders. Severina Rojas, who came here from Bolivia, said her son has talked more to her about school since she began attending the breakfasts. "He talks about his teachers, what he's learning," Rojas said. "He didn't do that before."

Last week, Montgomery County schools launched their "working together" booklet program for Asian parents, spokesman Brian Porter said. The booklet, to be published in six Asian languages, will explain school programs and instruction and is one of several activities the district has introduced to draw in the immigrant parent, Porter said.

"It's a very aggressive outreach program," he said.

The tailor-made immigrant programs at Alexandria's Francis C. Hammond Middle School are paying off, said Annabella Klockner, a bilingual psychologist there. A monthly meeting, with free babysitting, allows parents to discuss everything from the grading system to school rules. In the past year, Klockner said, a huge cultural taboo has begun to break down: Some parents have asked her about sexual development of young people, a topic rarely discussed by Latino parents.

The steps are small, she said, but significant. Immigrant parents' confidence in the schools and their participation will grow, she said, as long as schools remain receptive.

"If you have the resources, they do come," she said.

 

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