Engaged Families and Communities

Parents gather at Hallman Elementary School for the weekly cafésito. Photo: Juan Trujillo

ESPs Making Parents a Priority

It’s late. The school day is over. Outside the rain-soaked grounds of West Seattle Elementary School in Washington, parents begin arriving for a meeting with Elizabeth Enriquez, a bilingual instructional assistant.

Many of these parents are Latino immigrants. They are not accustomed to participating in school activities. They speak little English and are not familiar with the U.S. public school system. It’s intimidating. All of it. The staff. The buildings. The paperwork. The other parents. But they are here, despite the rain. Despite everything. They are here because Enriquez worked late the previous two weeks phoning them at home, after they returned from work, inviting them, sometimes pleading with them, to visit “their school,” as Enriquez puts it. A personal invitation. So they are here in wet clothes and muddy shoes to meet Enriquez, their contact at the school. A friend. They are here for their children and to begin planning this year’s student book fair.

“A lot of our parents don’t speak English,” says Enriquez, known as “Miss Lisa” to her students. “So, having the means to communicate with them, or having somebody who knows about their culture, their traditions, helps a lot.”

In her own endearing and masterful way, Enriquez has changed the culture at West Seattle. Once reluctant, inhibited parents are now attending PTA meetings, participating in school fundraisers, parent’s day, and other events. Armed with a welcoming smile, warm hug, and hard facts about parent participation, Enriquez is indirectly helping to improve student achievement by working with parents.

“At our meetings we explain how important it is for them (parents) to teach their children to behave at school and do their homework,” says Enriquez, a member of the Seattle Education Association. “We want them to know that if their children don’t study, they may fail.”

Education Support Professionals (ESPs) like Enriquez, and community outreach coordinators like Akiyya Bass is Las Vegas, Nevada, and Juan Trujillo in Salem, Oregon, are contributing more and more to the transformation of chronically low-performing schools. Seventy-seven percent of ESPs live in the school districts where they work, and naturally form strong ties with their communities. By working with parents, teachers and members of the community, many ESPs now serve as the link between the school and the public education stakeholders in their community.

“Every year, I invite our Spanish-speaking parents to meet each other and form a group to plan school activities,” says Enriquez, now in her 10th year coordinating the group. “I want this to be an ongoing activity for as long as I’m here and after I’m gone.”

Enriquez admits that “some years the group is more cohesive than other times. Sometimes they organize themselves better.”

In Las Vegas, Kit Carson Elementary School is another example of a priority school that is benefitting from the leadership and community activism of ESPs.

“We make sure that our support staff is involved in everything we do at the school,” says Cynthia Marlowe, Kit Carson principal.

Like West Seattle, Kit Carson was the recipient of a federal School Improvement Grant (SIG), aimed at helping to turnaround the nation’s lowest performing schools with an influx of funds and new operating system. Both schools are part of NEA’s Priority School Campaign, which helps NEA members in struggling or priority schools to significantly raise student achievement through collaboration between families, school system leaders, elected officials, and other community stakeholders.

ESP Akiyya Bass is the school/community facilitator at Kit Carson. Bass helps school families, many of them immigrants, with everything from enrolling them in English language classes and computer courses to putting them in touch with social service workers, bankers, and landlords.

“We have a parents meeting twice a month,” she says. “We learn what is on their minds and how we can help.”

One meeting might involve gang intervention strategies. Another might focus on the benefits of reading books to their children at bedtime.

“We also involve parents in planning our multicultural fair,” she says. For the annual fair, Bass works with parents, local businesses, and organizations such as the Las Vegas Public Library System, NAACP, and National Urban League. At the fair, held in spring, community organizations set up exhibition tables and provide recreational activities for kids.

“Our parents meet community leaders and they all get to know one another,” Bass says.

At Hallman Elementary School in Salem, Oregon, 80 percent of the school’s 500 students are Latino. Almost 100 percent of them receive a free breakfast and lunch.

“The parents here are not wealthy, but they are generous, caring people,” says ESP Juan Trujillo, community/school outreach coordinator.

They donate plants and flowers for the school’s beautification program and make tamales to sell at fundraisers, activities organized by Trujillo.

“It kind of nice how parents want to get involved at a school after they are made to feel welcomed,” says Trujillo, a native of Mexico who grew up since age 5 in Oregon. When Trujillo first arrived at Hallman six years ago, attendance at PTA meetings was low. Trujillo wanted to change this. He soon organized Friday morning parent meetings that became known as cafésitos – informal gatherings where coffee (café), pastry, and homemade tamales are served.

From conversation at the cafésitos, occurring in English and Spanish, Trujillo learned about the social needs of student families, such as attaining housing assistance, how to get a car loan or open a bank account. He often put them in touch with the right social service agencies. He also posted job openings on the bulletin board.

At first, only 10 parents would show up. Then 15, then 20, then more. Soon, the same parents attending cafésitos became regulars at parent night and PTA meetings. They came in numbers never seen before at the school.

“We average about 80 people on some nights,” Trujillo says. “The idea was to invite parents to the school and let them know we care about them as well as their kids. They don’t know where to get help.”

Many of the participants attribute the increase in parental participation at the school to Trujillo’s cultural knowledge, bilingual skills, and persistence.

“I go outside and greet them in the morning to find out how things are going,” he says.

The bond that Trujillo has established with parents has led some to volunteer as landscapers, pulling weeds, trimming trees and planting flowers.

“Now that they are involved with the school, a certain loyalty and trust has been established,” he says. “This was one of our goals.”

View more articles in: Engaged Families and Communities, Nevada Oregon, Washington,

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PSC Superhero Keith G. Pemberton

Keith G. Pemberton is a social worker at Oak Hill Elementary School in High Point, N.C., where he has built a strong and steady pipeline for parental involvement, specifically among fathers and male mentors. Check out his Classroom Superhero profile and leave some words of encouragement.

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