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CHICAGO — Carolina Hernando was a senior in high school in 1999 when her guidance counselor delivered a devastating blow: She needed a Social Security number to go to college. An illegal immigrant from Mexico, Hernando had no idea what a Social Security number was, let alone that it would prevent her from becoming a teacher.
More than a decade later, Hernando still tears up when talking about it. “I was the first in my family to graduate high school,” she said. “I felt like all that hard work was wasted.”
When Hernando, who lives in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, heard about the Logan Square Neighborhood Association’s parent mentor program last fall, she leapt at the chance to get what she calls a “taste of being in the classroom.”
The year-long program places parents into a classroom in their child’s school for two hours every day. They work with individual students or small groups, helping teachers give more one-on-one attention to children. They also earn a stipend of $500-$600 per semester for their time.
This story is part of a series written in collaboration with NBC for the annual Education Nation summit.
Started in 1995 as a way to get more parents into schools, the parent mentor program has been adopted by other neighborhood groups and the city school district, spreading to 29 schools; the Logan Square Neighborhood Association oversees the program in eight of them. Each year, the program places hundreds parents in the classrooms of participating schools.
Some research suggests that the more involved a parent is in his or her child’s education, the better the child performs academically. Yet parent involvement in high-poverty schools is often an elusive goal. Some parents are unable or unwilling to participate; others are unsure of how to get involved. Logan Square views its mentor program as a response to this last problem — it provides clear-cut access to school involvement for nearly any willing parent.
In 2011, 21 percent of school-age children were living in poverty.
The Challenge: Parents who do not have the resources, or who do not speak English well enough, or who feel too intimidated to get involved in their children’s schools. We know that children stand a much better chance of success when their parents are involved – so how do we bridge that gap?
A Solution: The Logan Square Neighborhood Association unites home and school through a parent mentor program that helps parents, many of them immigrants in struggling communities, by putting them in the classroom.
(Source: National Center for Education Statistics)
Advocates say the program has contributed to improved student performance in the largely poor and minority neighborhood in northwestern Chicago, both for individual students and for the schools that participate. At James Monroe Elementary School, for instance, 74 percent of third-graders were proficient in reading in 2011, compared to 24 percent in 1999.
Yet the program, which draws a large percentage of immigrants, is just as much about adult education as it is about student achievement. After finishing the year helping in a classroom, many parents go on get a GED, enroll in college or start a career. The Logan Square Neighborhood Association estimates that 80 percent of its parent mentors go on to jobs or some sort of education.
“The parent mentor program is a place for them to be able to explore themselves and realize they can do things they think they can’t,” said Leticia Barrera, an education coordinator for the association and an alumna of the program.
Hernando, who as applied for a deferred action status under President Obama’s executive order for DREAMers, is still not a citizen and therefore ineligible for government aid for postsecondary education; college remains out of reach. But she’ll become a part-time classroom aide at her children’s elementary school this fall. She’ll also be a parent mentor coordinator at the elementary school, recruiting and supporting other parents in the program.
Her fellow coordinators have similar success stories. Adam Little grew up in a single-parent household with five siblings and is now a single father of two teenage girls. After an injury forced him to leave his job, he slipped into a three-year depression, until his mother dragged him to a parent mentor meeting at his girls’ school, he said. He’s now training to become a teacher.
Iyabo Anifowoshe, a former math teacher in Nigeria, still carries around her diploma at all times as proof she graduated as an electrical engineer from a university in Africa. She missed the classroom terribly until she found the parent mentor program.
“When you come to America you have to start your life all over again,” she said. “This year my whole life just changed.”
And the mentors’ children likely benefit as well, says Joanna Brown, Logan Square’s lead education organizer. “People’s goals for their children either go up or get really enforced,” she said. “That’s one of the big things they say — they learned how to help their kids at home.”
- When the parent mentor program was first launched, only five parents signed up. Today, about 120 parent mentors work across nine schools.
- More than 1,300 have graduated from the program. If you include schools outside the Logan Square neighborhood that have their own parent mentor programs, that number grows to more than 1,800.
- After finishing a year in the classroom, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) estimates that 80 percent of its parent mentors move on to jobs or further education. So far, 21 parent mentor alums have earned a teaching degree from the Grow Your Own Teacher program and dozens more are enrolled.
- Others have earned their GED, become parent tutors, sit on local school councils or have been hired in one of LSNA’s five community centers. “It’s a ladder of opportunity,” said Joanna Brown, lead education organizer for LSNA.
Recruitment for new mentors starts the first week of school, with fliers, notes sent home with children, even phone calls to potential candidates. Parents have to apply and go through a formal interview, but nearly everyone who clears a background check and meets other Chicago Public Schools guidelines, such as passing a tuberculosis test, is accepted. Parents with any level of education can participate.
Teacher participation is voluntary. Logan Square tries to place parents in a class in the same grade as their child or one above, but never in the same class as their child.
Parents often pick up strategies by watching the teachers. “They observe how we do it,” said Margarita Ampudia, a first-grade teacher at Monroe Elementary School. “They learn a little bit.”
Hernando said that by the end of her year as a parent mentor she’d seen grades improve for the students she worked with regularly.
Funding limits how many parents a given school is able to accept, Barrera said, but some schools — having seen how effective the program is at integrating parents into the school — are willing to pitch in. Logan Square asks that each participating school set aside $5,000 to $10,000 to pay for part of the program. The association then contributes $40,000 to $45,000 per school annually.
At Monroe, Principal Edwin Rivera meets with his parent mentors every other week to update them on school news and let them ask questions. His mentors also pitch in as crossing guards and lunch monitors; they supervise the hallways during standardized testing time.
Although test scores have skyrocketed at Monroe, proficiency rates still are slightly under state averages in most grades. The school has also recently seen a small dip in test scores, and it has been placed on a federal list of schools that are eligible for state sanctions based on a formula of expected test score growth.
Despite Monroe’s success in attracting parent mentors, there are still many more parents who aren’t involved at the school, where 96 percent of students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. Parent mentors must pledge 10 hours a week during school hours, meaning positions are primarily taken by those who don’t have other day jobs.
“It’s not that they don’t want to come,” Rivera said of the other parents. “There are a lot of obstacles.”
For those without steady work like Hernando, though, time is not a limiting factor. In fact, she, along with other parent coordinators, dedicated a week of the summer to get ready to work with newcomers. Each coordinator-to-be practiced leading a different part of the parent mentor training that they would do in the fall.
During one session, one of the coordinators, Samantha Garrett, led the group through a goal-setting exercise. “Your goals [are] for you,” she said, “not for your children, not for your husband.”
Hernando scribbled down her own goal immediately: to take leadership classes so she can give future parent mentors the best experience possible. Latino parents, she explained, are often isolated from their children’s education, not understanding how schools work or how to get involved. Her own parents didn’t know how to help her get into college. She wants to make sure that’s not true for the next generation.
“It’s great,” she said about her new mentor coordinator role. “I can help other parents get involved.”
This story also appeared on NBCNews.com.