Parents Finding a Voice
Schools Encourage More Participation
by Elaine Rivera, Washington Post, May 28, 2003
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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:
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
"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
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
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
"I don't understand English -- we couldn't deal with the school
if they were not here," Morales said. "This trailer is a
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
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
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.