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Chicago Community Group Breaks Down Home-School Barriers

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Several years after relocating from Ecuador to Chicago, Shirley Reyes found herself living a lonely life, anxiously waiting at home each day for her children and husband to return from school and work.

Ms. Reyes’ isolation ended, however, when she joined the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, a community-based group that shakes up the traditional approach to parent involvement in schooling by focusing on altering school culture, empowering parents, and breaking down barriers between parents and schools.

Author and researcher Soo Hong tells the story of Ms. Reyes and other Logan Square parents and educators in A Cord of Three Strands, a case study of the LSNA published earlier this year by Harvard Education Press. Ms. Hong is currently traveling the country to promote the group’s work as a model for other communities looking to boost parent involvement in schools. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also held the program up as a model for all of Chicago’s public schools during a speech last month unveiling his Office of New Americans to work with community organizations, among other groups, to engage immigrant communities.

Logan Square Neighborhood Association leader Shirley Reyes speaks at a mayoral election forum last year at the University of Illinois, in Chicago. Ms. Reyes credits the organization’s parent-mentor program with helping her become more engaged her in her children’s school and overcome the sense of isolation she felt as an immigrant and a stay-at-home parent.
Logan Square Neighborhood Association leader Shirley Reyes speaks at a mayoral election forum last year at the University of Illinois, in Chicago. Ms. Reyes credits the organization’s parent-mentor program with helping her become more engaged her in her children’s school and overcome the sense of isolation she felt as an immigrant and a stay-at-home parent.
—Sarah Jane Rhee

One way the group chips away at barriers between home and school is through its flagship parent-mentor program, which trains parents to work in classrooms alongside teachers. While it’s not uncommon for parents to volunteer to work in middle-class, suburban classrooms on a regular basis, the practice is not as common in many urban communities, particularly those populated by immigrants coming from cultures where the tradition has been to leave schooling to the educators.

As part of the LSNA program, the trained parents are assigned to a classroom where they work with the teacher and students for two hours in the mornings, Monday through Thursday. As an enticement, parents are paid a small stipend for their work.

Ms. Reyes, who moved to the U.S. more than two decades ago, knew very little about the American school system before becoming a parent mentor, and she said she felt uneasy leaving her three children at school every day.

“So these mothers may feel the way I do, too,” Ms. Hong quotes Ms. Reyes saying in the book. “They are in a new country,” Ms. Reyes continues, “and they don’t know anything about the school, but they have to trust that the school is taking care of their child.”

Ms. Reyes tried chaperoning field trips at her children’s school in their old neighborhood to calm the uneasiness, but it was little help. Then the family moved to the Logan Square neighborhood, a mostly Hispanic community on the northwest side of Chicago, and she enrolled her children at Mozart Elementary school. There, Ms. Reyes felt more at home, but still lonely during the school day.

Overcoming Isolation

Nancy Aardema, the director of the LSNA, said such feelings are common among the immigrant women in the community. When parents “graduate” from the parent-mentor program at the end of each year, many share their personal stories about life before and after becoming a mentor.

“One thing that comes up over and over again is ‘I felt isolated,’ ” Ms. Aardema said. The program tries to change that feeling by using the schools as a place for parents to interact with one another and make new friends, while also lending a hand to students and teachers.

Susana Rojas, who has been teaching at Mozart Elementary for six years, said the parent mentors are a huge asset in the classroom. With an extra adult to help keep children engaged and on track, breaking the students into small groups is much more manageable and enjoyable, Ms. Rojas said. Many parents in the community know each other, too, she said, so they can help the teacher reach out to a family if a child is having a problem in class.

Before taking the job at Mozart, Ms. Rojas taught for 10 years at a school in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, where there was no such program. The difference, she said, is tangible.

“They’re really lacking parental involvement and input there,” she said. “Here it is like a community.”

For the parents, teaching in the classroom is the first step to meeting the personal goals they set at the beginning of the program, such as learning English or getting teacher certification. Ms. Rojas’ first parent mentor got her General Educational Development credential through the program, and Ms. Reyes became a member of the local school council.

“You can see that you can be able to not just be at home and do the dishes and cook. You are actually able to do more than that. You can be a teacher—a second teacher—in the school,” Ms. Reyes said in a recent talk held in Washington about the program and her book.

Now a co-coordinator of the mentor program at Mozart Elementary, Ms. Reyes guides other parents through the process of becoming a mentor.

Promoting Engagement

In A Cord of Three Strands, Ms. Hong, an assistant professor of education at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, talks about the vital role the coordinators play in helping parents overcome their initial fears of entering the schools.

“Part of what I’m interested in and what LSNA does so well is understanding the process of parent engagement,” Ms. Hong said.

Parents in some urban communities usually only come to their children’s schools when the students are in trouble or something else is wrong, she said. But the Logan Square Neighborhood Association tries to make them part of the school’s culture so their daily presence is natural and welcomed.

Ms. Hong first heard about the group during a graduate school class she was taking and decided to study its approach to blending schools, parents, and community. Over the next four years, Ms. Hong traveled back and forth from Boston to Chicago to document the group’s work, which later became her book.

The group tries to answer questions like “Why do the parents choose to stay away?” and “What kinds of experiences do they have that make them change their minds, allowing them to become involved?” Answering those questions helps the group to understand the way parents in the community think and function, Ms. Hong said.

Ms. Aardema, of the LSNA, said gaining the teachers’ trust was the biggest obstacle when the group first started bringing parents into the schools.

“I think really building those relationships with the educators is incredibly important,” she said, “and that, of course, takes time.”

Since the start of the parent-mentor program in 1995 approximately 2,000 parents have gone through the parent-mentor program, according to Ms. Aardema. It’s given them a chance not only to see how the schools operate, but also to focus on setting and meeting their own goals.

Ms. Hong, in researching her book, saw the way the mentoring program transformed the parents and gave them a voice and sense of power. But the way the LSNA really stands out, she said, is that the group aligns itself with the teachers and their unions and works to get them the support they need.

“I think people might instinctively feel that community-organizing groups would be oppositional, but it’s about finding shared points of interest and common grounds,” Ms. Hong said.

History of Partnering

After first partnering with teachers and administrators in the late 1980s to help alleviate overcrowding in schools, the LSNA was able to establish a sense of camaraderie with local school officials that gave the group greater access to the schools. That mutual trust led to a lasting partnership.

Today parents are a fixture in most Logan Square schools and are very active in the classrooms. Though it was a challenge at first to find teachers willing to have parents work in their classrooms, today the demand exceeds the supply, Ms. Aardema said.

The parents complete at least a year of work in a classroom before graduating from the program and going on to do other things, such as getting their GED or becoming a parent-mentor coordinator at the school.

“There is always a parent who gets up [at the graduation ceremony] and says how they were transformed and how the kids in the community look up to them,” Ms. Aardema said. “You become a public person, and so you begin to look at yourself a bit differently.”

The idea, which the group thinks is replicable anywhere, is to change the whole culture of the school and community. It takes time, and it’s never easy, Ms. Aardema said, but the results are noticeable and potentially life-changing.

Different communities face different problems, Ms. Hong acknowledged, but the commonality is the shared hopes and dreams the parents have for their children. Many immigrant parents come to the United States with varying expectations for community engagement, which middle-class neighborhoods may have already established. And the relationship between parents and teachers is often different depending on the neighborhood.

“If the parents aren’t involved for any reason, schools sometimes translate that into parents’ not caring or parents not being interested. In middle-class families, you don’t have such a ready assumption,” Ms. Hong said.

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