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Misreading Said To Hamper Hispanics' Role in Schools

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Misunderstandings between Hispanic parents and teachers--not a lack of concern--have caused Hispanic parents to be uninvolved in their children's education, a three-year study released last week says.

The study by the Hispanic Policy Development Project was based on 42 projects designed to bring Hispanic parents into the schools.

Its release comes just weeks after many leaders of the Hispanic community gave U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos a drumming for implying that Hispanic parents undervalue education and need an "attitudinal change." (See Education Week, April 18, 1990.)

According to the 72-page report, "Together Is Better: Building Strong Partnerships Between Schools and Hispanic Parents," low-income Hispanic parents care deeply about their children's education, but are unfamiliar with the roles expected of them in the American school system.

"The U.S. school system assumes that parents will take some responsibility for their children's success in formal education by preparing them for school, teaching basic skills, and reinforcing what goes on in the classroom after children reach school age," the study notes.

In contrast, it asserts, most low-income Hispanic parents--especially those from immigrant and migrant populations--"are unfamiliar with this role."

In their native countries, parents are expected to instill respect and proper behavior in their children, the study notes. But teaching is the school's job and "not the parents' business."

Hispanic parents teach their children such essential social skills as cooperation, the study found.

But, the study concludes, most low-income Hispanic parents are unaware of specific practices that could lay the basis for future learning, such as talking and reading to their children at home. In addition, many such parents look upon school officials as experts "whom they have no right to question."

For their part, the study states, "few teachers or administrators are offered training to help them interpret Hispanic behavior, reach out to Hispanic parents, or understand the considerable strengths Hispanics can bring to the school-parent partnership."

"Left on their own to sink or swim," the study notes, "many school officials and teachers misread the reserve, the non-confrontational manner, and the non-involvement of Hispanic parents to mean that they are uncaring, passive, and uninterested in their children's education.''

The resulting gulf between home and school has contributed to learning problems for scores of Hispanic youngsters, according to the report.

Approximately 40 percent of Hispanic students drop out of high school; another 25 percent graduate without the skills needed to find a job with opportunities for advancement.

Such children are "condemned to marginal futures," the report asserts.

The finding is particularly troubling given the growing Hispanic population in the United States. By the year 2000, almost 16 percent of school-age youngsters and young job seekers will be of Hispanic origin.

A 1984 study conducted by the organization found that the interaction between poor Hispanic parents and schools ranged from minimal to nonexistent.

But it does not have to be that way, the new report asserts.

The 42 projects sponsored by the Reader's Digest Foundation and the General Foods Fund highlighted a number of "do's and don'ts" for reaching out to Hispanic parents. For example:

Strong personal outreach to parents--involving face-to-face contact in their primary language--was judged most effective by 98 percent of the project coordinators. In contrast, mailings or fliers were found to be "nearly useless," because parents either could not read them or chose not to open them.

The most successful projects recognized that the school itself was an obstacle to establishing strong parent-teacher bonds. They scheduled their first events outside the school, at some neutral neighborhood site, and focused on making the parents feel comfortable.

Schools that initially attempted to involve Hispanic parents in existing parents' organizations also failed. Low-income parents were easily intimidated and uncomfortable when expected to cope with unfamiliar organizational structures and procedures, the study reported.

Moreover, they were not always welcomed by the existing parent committees, who perceived them as a threat to their control.

The report contains a number of other recommendations for reaching out to parents, including a section on how to work with Hispanic fathers, teenage mothers, and severely troubled families.

According to the report, parents in successful programs began to feel a sense of belonging; many became deeply involved both in school activities and in the educational progress of their children. Four projects also reported that participating students developed better attitudes, class participation, behaviors, and study habits than did non-project peers.

A 24-page companion publication for Hispanic parents explains the role they are expected to play in U.S. schools. The booklet is in Spanish, and an English translation is available.

Single copies of both the study and the companion booklet can be obtained by sending a check or money order for $9 to the Hispanic Policy Development Project, Suite 310, 1001 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036. Further information is available by calling (202) 822-8414.

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