Families & the Community

Parental Guidance

February 01, 2003 5 min read
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Los Angeles schools find that tending to the needs of urban mothers and fathers helps their children perform better in class.

It’s Blue Day in the “Mommy and Me” class at Roscoe Elementary School, and Salvador, a 16-month-old being wheeled into the classroom in a navy-blue stroller, is appropriately decked out in royal-blue overalls. He’s also carrying a large, stuffed, blue dog. Parent educator Kim Shirley adds the words “stroller” and “overalls” to the vocabulary list on the chalkboard as she exuberantly leads the group of mothers and toddlers in applause. Having the Spanish-speaking mothers and their kids bring something blue to class, she will say later, is a subtle way to get both parent and child involved in education and to encourage conversation at home.

For the mothers, who all have older children at Roscoe Elementary, the weekly class is a chance to learn some English, get to know other parents, and familiarize their toddlers with group activities. The class is also just one of many educational opportunities open to parents at the school and throughout the Los Angeles unified system’s District B. This subdistrict in the San Fernando Valley includes 80 schools and roughly 80,000 students. It devotes about $1.8 million annually to its parent education program, which pays for 90 staff members and other necessities.

Bernarda Madera, who has a 3rd grader at Roscoe, is participating in the Mommy and Me class with her 3-year-old daughter. She says it helps her as a mother and prepares her younger daughter for preschool. “She’s not going to cry like most of the kids,” Madera predicts. “And I have learned how to be social.”

As obvious as the benefits of the program appear to be, “the ‘parent piece’ [of the school community] had not been hit upon for a long time, not in urban communities,” says Charlotte Castagnola, District B’s parent activities facilitator. “There was some idea that because these parents didn’t have the language or the educational background, they would not be capable of anything that was worthwhile or would make a difference.” But the experiences of schools in District B—and those of educators in the city’s District F, a downtown area with more than 57,000 students—indicate otherwise.

With a growing body of research suggesting that family involvement in education can improve student performance, the two districts’ dedication to treating parents as partners is attracting the attention of school reformers across the country. The National Network of Partnership Schools, a group run by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, recently recognized the districts for their efforts to help educators form bonds with parents.

Partnerships in districts B and F focus their efforts on specific goals, such as creating a friendly learning environment and improving student achievement. “It’s nice to have parent activities, but if they’re not relating to your school outcome goals, then they’re just activities,” says Curtis Johnson, a program coordinator at Roscoe Elementary. Ninety-three percent of the school’s 1,300 pupils are Hispanic, and all of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Among Roscoe’s initiatives is the “interactive homework session,” in which parents are invited into the classroom to help their kids’ teachers with lessons. Less than a mile down the road, at the 1,150-student Arminta Elementary School, parents work closely with their children during “math nights,” attend workshops on the district’s reading curriculum, and study test-taking strategies. During “learning walks,” they visit classrooms and take notes on instruction. Later, they share their observations with teachers.

Arminta’s population, like the one at Roscoe, is predominantly Hispanic, proving that such initiatives can work even if parents’ English is limited. “Language doesn’t have to be a barrier,” says Angelica Gutierrez, one of Arminta’s community representatives, staff members who help coordinate parent activities. What most parents need, she adds, is the confidence to help their children and to learn skills that benefit the school as a whole.

After walking into Arminta Elementary’s parent center, a room where family members can drop in any time, Gutierrez reaches for a photo album. Opening it, she proudly turns page after page, each showing parents involved in some kind of school activity, whether it’s operating office equipment or assisting teachers in the classroom. Many classes offered at the schools in districts B and F are, in fact, tailored toward parents’ needs. Computer and ESL classes are common, as are those in Latino leadership which encourage assertiveness and the proper use of health and social services. Arminta even hosts an immigration workshop for parents with questions about work permits and residency requirements. In District F, which has a large Asian population, materials are translated into Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese.

Initially, both districts concentrated on reaching elementary school families. But lately, parents of middle and high schoolers have been encouraged to get involved. District B, for instance, offers “Tea for 10,” an afternoon session that has parents of academically accomplished students talking to staff about what they do at home to help their children. That information is then shared with the parents of what Castagnola calls the “shaky C” students. At North Hollywood High, a different tack is taken: The parents of students who are struggling academically mentor not their own kids, but each other’s. The idea is that adults make “a commitment to supporting a child’s academic program, but they practice theseactivities with another student,” Castagnola says.

Linda Ariyasu, the school-family facilitator for District F, says she finds it more challenging to reach parents at the secondary level. She’s learned, however, that class schedules and whether kids are taking the courses they’ll need to prepare for college rank as that group of parents’ biggest concernswhich means they have something in common with their counterparts. “Whether you’re a preschool or a high school parent,” Ariyasu explains, “everyone wants their child to have the option to go to college.”

—Linda Jacobson

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