Image: Parent mentor coordinators plan
Sarah Butrymowicz  /  The Hechinger Report
Parent mentor coordinators with the Logan Square program prepare for a group presentation during a summer training session.
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updated 9/24/2012 10:31:00 AM ET 2012-09-24T14:31:00

Editor's note: This story is one in a 10-part series on education solutions featured at the 2012 Education Nation summit in New York on Sept. 23-25. To learn more about these schools and how they made these solutions work, please visit EducationNation.com for a complete “digital toolkit.”

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 undocumented 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.

Read more education analysis at The Hechinger Report

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 29schools; 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 suggeststhat 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.

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.

Image: Leticia Barrera
Nbc News
Leticia Barrera, an education coordinator: "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.”

Letting parents explore
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.”

'Digital toolkit': Putting parents to work in the classroom

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.

'There are a lot of obstacles'
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.

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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.”

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For those without steady work like Hernando, though, time is not a limiting factor. In fact, she, along with otherparent 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, "Education Nation: Mentoring becomes as much about parents as it is about kids," was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Copyright © 2013 The Hechinger Report

Video: School program connects immigrant parents, teachers

  1. Closed captioning of: School program connects immigrant parents, teachers

    >>> that work. we've made our way to the nbc summit at the new york public library and today contributing correspondent jenna bush hager is here with a program that's not only helping students but an entire community. good morning.

    >> good morning, savannah, that's right. the problem how to build a bridge from home to school in know-lock families. many are immigrants isolated by culture and the solution, building trust between parents and educators. graduation day at the james monroe elementary school . diplomas are being handed out to 300 parents, from 28 public schools in chicago . although some are still learning english.

    >> no speak english.

    >> they completed a year working alongside teachers in the classroom as parent mentors. logan square in northwest chicago is a mostly hispanic neighborhood, where 96% of the families are low income. and unlike suburban parents, urban immigrants are somewhat reluctant to volunteer in schools.

    >> i was like i don't think i can help these kids because i'm not a teacher.

    >> reporter: in 1995 the logan square neighborhood association convinced schools to let parents assist in the classroom.

    >> what used to be called a fortress environment where the walls around and the moat around the school, it's broken barriers on both sides.

    >> reporter: former parent mentor laticia ber ra iia barrera is now a program coordinator.

    >> building a relationship is huge. i didn't realize.

    >> reporter: children who need extra help get the attention they need.

    >> i have 31 students this year, and they do have a range of needs, so having that extra help allows me to reach each of the children who might need more support than others.

    >> reporter: maya jimenez may be a bit camera shy, but she shines in the classroom.

    >> she's a good teacher.

    >> she is like a mom, our second mom. she helps us write something that we don't know.

    >> i like him.

    >> reporter: monroe principal edwin rivera says the program's impact goes way beyond raising test scores .

    >> we see that the bond between parent mentors and student, it's like sometimes i go to nao classrooms, and you can't tell who the teacher is because the parent mentor is as involved as the teacher.

    >> reporter: other chicago schools adopted the model. more than 2,000 parents have completed the program. the program inspired graduation speaker patricia lopez to pursue her own education.

    >> i understood that i have what they show, and i -- i discovered that i have the passion to teach.

    >> when we educate parents, we educate the community.

    >> reporter: one program improving schools, bridging communities and changing lives. and a recent study shows test scores have doubled over the past nine years in schools with parent mentors. as a teacher myself who spent time teaching in urban schools, can i validate how important it is to have parents involved in their schools, in their students' academic success.

    >> we want to talk to you about that. we want to introduce you to mayor julian cass have to of san antonio .

    >> great to be here.

    >> let's talk about your time as a teacher. did you really see a difference with student achievement when the parents were involved?

    >> i taught third grade in inner city d.c., mainly a hispanic neighborhood, and my students whose parents were involved, who read to them when they were little, and came into my classroom for parent-teacher conferences were on average a year and a half above grade level .

    >> mr. mayor, we remember your convention speech at the democratic national convention . you talked about your grandmother and how invested she was and your mom as well.

    >> sure.

    >> in your education. is there a barrier in this community sometimes to have parents come in and work with the schools, as we saw in the piece?

    >> a lot of times, you know, families don't know where to start, and they feel like the teachers are the experts, so let's go ahead and, you know, take the kids to school and the experts will take care of it, and the great thing about the piece and what's happening more and more in schools is that schools are now embracing parents more, creating family rooms or parent rooms within schools, starting initiatives where parents speak with parents and mentor them so that they can get involved. it's that empowerment of parents to actually, you know, don't just think that the teachers in the schools are the experts. also read to your child and be involved so that program in chicago is a great model for other communities to follow.

    >> i know you're a believer in public schools . you're a product of public schools . your daughter is in a public school and your wife is a teacher.

    >> she is.

    >> if you had a magic wand and could make any change overnight, what would you do?

    >> what we're doing in san antonio , we actually have a ballot initiative right now to start early to significantly invest in pre-k education. so important. the research shows that the greatest return on investment is if you get kids in at 3, 4 years old, and so i'd like to see a shift in emphasis or a greater amount of resource funding and emphasis in the entire education ecosystem on early childhood education .

    >> get them early, it makes a real difference.

    >> certainly does.

    >> mayor julian castro , jenna bush hager , thank you so much.

    >> we'll continue our conversation here here at education nation. if you want information on programs that work, head to educationnation.com/casestudies.

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