Over the course of one school year, Teresa Moran has gone from a concerned yet helpless parent to an active participant in her children's education.
Last school year, Moran was struggling to communicate with her second-grade son, Robert, about how he was doing in his Los Angeles school. Moran, who immigrated to the area from Mexico 12 years ago, spoke very little English and could not help her son with his homework or discuss any educational concerns with his teacher.
This year, Moran, a 37-year-old mother of four, is spending time with Robert in his classroom at Sixty-Sixth Street Elementary School. And she now knows enough English to help him with his math and writing assignments.
-Missy Hawes, family literacy coordinator, Murchison Street Elementary School
Moran is one of more than 60 families participating in L.A.'s Toyota Family Literacy Program, which is aimed at helping Hispanic students and their parents improve their language skills.
Sponsored by the Toyota Motor Corp. and the National Center for Family Literacy, the program began in September in Los Angeles, as well as Chicago, the District of Columbia, Providence and New York City. Each district is receiving $225,000 over a three-year period, with an additional $125,000 being retained by NCFL for support services, such as teacher training and technical assistance.
"We know right now that the Latino-Hispanic population has the highest drop-out rate of any minority,'' says Sharon Darling, president and founder of the National Center for Family Literacy. "Now they are the largest minority, so it really is a challenge to make sure that we provide educational opportunities for their success." Hispanic immigrants, who often have had little formal education in their own country, are the hardest segment to reach.
At-Risk in L.A.
Los Angeles is tops in two areas that put its students at a disadvantage overall: It has the highest rate of under-educated adults in any major metro area, and it has the largest Hispanic population for a U.S. city. Currently 4.2 million Hispanics reside in the city, and more than 3.6 million residents of the city are foreign born.
Among the eight L.A. schools that applied for the program, three were chosen by the district to receive grants. The schools--Sixty-Sixth Street Elementary, Meyler Elementary and Murchison Street Elementary--have the highest Hispanic populations within the district and the highest percentage of students eligible for free lunch. At each site, classroom teachers with ESL students involved in the program work with the school's parent educator (who addresses discipline and social issues with parents) and an adult ESL educator.
Program Coordinator Leandra Woods says the grants helped the district expand a previously established literacy program aimed at pre-school children to school-age children and their parents. That program is similar in that it brings parents and children together, but it's not specifically for Hispanic parents.
The new grant also helps bridge a gap between the district's 20 adult English language education programs and its elementary bilingual programs. "Adult school teachers may not be aware of the elementary school environment," Woods says. When these two groups interact, it helps everyone to focus on how to support families.
With the Hispanic family literacy program, parents (who are mainly stay-at-home moms):
Attend English language classes for several hours a day
Observe their children in their elementary classes once or twice each week. This provides awareness for what their children are learning and enables them to understand the lesson's vocabulary so they can help the children practice at home.
Spend time with their children on field trips and at school to work on homework or projects
Attend parenting classes to discuss issues ranging from nutrition to discipline to standardized tests.
Culture Shock To Education Rock
Helping Hispanic families to be partners in their children's education typically starts by answering the question, "Why?" "It is almost disrespectful in some cultures for parents to ask questions of teachers," Darling says. "They sometimes feel they are challenging their children's teacher if they ask a question.''
Cecilia Noboa-Castro, a parent education teacher at Murchison Street Elementary, says she explains to them that "in the U.S., ... if you don't get involved, the teachers will think you don't care."
She also cautions them to start right away. "I tell them, 'Don't wait until it's too late. The younger [your children] are, the better, because you will be on top of things.' "
Since parental involvement is a proven key in the academic success of a student, the family literacy program focuses on giving parents the skills to communicate with teachers and school officials, Darling says.
And a transformation seems to be occurring. Los Angeles educators say they see significant changes in parents and students who are involved.
Missy Hawes, the family literacy coordinator at Murchison, which aims its program at third through fifth grade students and their parents, tells of a third-grade boy named Mauricio who barely talked when he first came to school.
Mauricio's mother is a Mexican immigrant and single parent of three. Since they've been involved in the program, their communication skills have improved tremendously, pumping up the self-esteem of both child and mother.
"It's like a metamorphosis, like a blooming flower that has just emerged. Now you can have an incredible conversation with him. In kindergarten he would not have played with other kids. Now at recess he is leader of the pack. He is a fluent English speaker now and is encouraging his mom to speak more English. His mother is now on the school site leadership council,'' says Hawes.
While it's too soon to tell if the program is helping to raise test scores, its students are experiencing improved academic achievement at a more rapid rate than their peers, educators say. They're acquiring English language skills faster and are participating more in school activities with their parents.
"From what the teachers are telling us, the child is much more focused in class and happy now that their parent is involved and comes to school,'' says Mallory Fessler, Sixty-Sixth Street's family literacy coordinator. "Parents are developing relationships with teachers and going to conferences. They are involved with the school."
Darling says parents involved in similar programs in the past often go on to pursue high school degrees and, in some cases, college and vocational training.
When the program grant runs out after the 2005-2006 school year, Woods and Darling hope to keep it funded through Title I and Head Start funds, federal and state reading grants and federal language acquisition grants. Darling also hopes other cities will adopt the model to start their own family literacy programs.
"Now those monies are being used in pieces just to serve one segment of the family,'' Darling says. "But you can get a lot more synergy from this, double duty dollars, and that is a better investment."
Los Angeles Unified School District
Number of schools: 434 elementary, 78 middle, 56 high schools
Number of teachers: 34,215
Number of students: 906,784
Per-pupil expenditure (1999-2000): $6,382
Drop-out rate (2001-2002): 5.7 percent
Ethnicity: 71.9% Hispanic, 12.1% African-American, 9.4% white, 3.9% Asian
City Population: 4,502,647
Per-capita income (2000): $20,683
Median price of single-family home: $385,090
Superintendent: Roy Romer, since 2002
Web site: www.lausd.net
Fran Silverman is a freelance writer based in Norwalk, Conn.