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The Associated Press

Schools Make Efforts To Work With Latino Parents


February 17, 2002
Copyright © 2002
The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) - Nitza Colon doesn't give up easily, especially when trying to coax Latino parents into attending Parent-Teacher Organization meetings at Marvine Elementary School in Bethlehem.

So on a recent afternoon, hours before a scheduled meeting, the PTO leader asks her friend and co-worker Linda Lopez if she'll attend.

Lopez, a school secretary, says she would like to but cannot leave work early. And after work, she has to be home to care for her 7-year-old foster child and to cook dinner.

Colon thanks her and goes on, mindful of the demands on parents but determined to boost parental involvement at the school.

"They tell me they are tired, have to take care of their younger children, the husband wants the dinner on the table," Colon says. "There are many reasons why they cannot show up."

Attempts to get Latino parents more involved in their childrens education are not limited to Marvine.

The reason? Latino children, as well as African-American children, are more likely than their white counterparts to fail in school, and lack of parental involvement is partly to blame, according to a 1994 study by the National Assessment of Educational Performance.

To spur involvement, area schools send out notices in Spanish and English. Administrators hire bilingual staff. At a parents night in December at Allen High School in Allentown, Puerto Rican rice and beans was served; a disc jockey played salsa and Spanish hip-hop to create an environment familiar to Latinos.

"Getting (Latino) parents involved is difficult, but you need that if you want the children to succeed," said Abe Karahoca, who heads Allen's English for Speakers of Other Languages department.

"Most parents come here when their kids face disciplinary action, not for positive moments. They are predisposed to think they come to school to get bad news."

Latino parents keep a distance for many reasons language barriers, cultural differences and, if parents and their children are illegal immigrants, a fear of deportation, educators say. Also, modern-day pressures, including jobs, leave little time for parents of all ethnic groups to participate.

At Marvine, where about 80 percent of the 305 students are Latino, Colon is president, secretary and treasurer of the PTO. She has been president for six years and wants someone to take her place. She is not hopeful.

Usually between 20 and 30 parents attend the PTO meetings, but only four parents showed up in January, despite her making dozens of phone calls. She hopes the turnout is higher this month.

"I have only a few loyal ones," she says.

Colon has held meetings at 4 p.m., when she figured it would be easier to coax parents to stay when they come to pick up their children. That hasn't worked, so she'll try holding meetings later, possibly at 6:15 p.m. when parents might be finished with work and dinner.

"These are only once a month," she says. "I am sure parents can find an hour or so a month. Get a baby sitter, or something."

At the meetings, parents talk about their children's curriculum and how to approach teachers with complaints or questions.

Colon, who works at the school, stops by some of her 8-year-old sons classes, especially math, where he needs help. "I don't want to tell him I dot know, so I often stay after class to ask the teacher questions," she says.

Most Latino parents want the best for their children but are not sure how to do it in the American school system.

In Puerto Rico and some Latin American countries, parents do not need to make appointments to see a teacher or a principal. In the United States, they have to fill out paperwork and write letters when a child misses school.

And then there is a language barrier, says Patricia Terreros, an English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher at Allen. Many parents do not speak or write the language they need to approach teachers and principals.

"They are lost," Karahoca says. "I would be, too."

A 48-year-old parent who is an illegal immigrant said she doesn't attend parent-teacher meetings in part because she fears officials will find out her status .

"I have to be careful of the steps I take," the woman said. "One wrong move and we can be deported."

Jobs at times interfere, because many first-generation Latino parents work long hours at more than one job.

Overcoming those obstacles is more important than ever to help parents find their way. Latinos, a burgeoning group, make up about 45 percent of the Allentown School District's student body. Latinos make up 26 percent of Bethlehem Area's students and 9 percent of Easton Area schools.

ASD is trying hard to improve students performances. It was placed on the states list of academically distressed schools in 2000 after more than 50 percent of the students scored in the bottom one-fourth on a standardized test.

In the Bethlehem Area School District, reading scores at three elementary schools dropped more than 100 points, and scores at four other elementary schools declined 70 points or more.

Some administrators, as they learn about the cultural differences, are looking for ways to help Latino parents feel at ease at school.

At Allen, Larahoca is planning more parents nights that feature Latino food and music. He hoped 200 Latino parents would attend December's meeting. About 100 attended.

Parents met teachers and learned how to contact them. Parents also learned about volunteering at school and how to help their children apply for college, Karahoca said.

Districtwide, some teachers have taken classes to learn about language and cultural aspects of Puerto Rico. Allentown School District, Lehigh Carbon Community College and DeSales University used a three-year $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to train ASD teachers and teacher aides.

Other teachers try to meet parents when they pick up their children at school, said Ana Sainz de la Pena, Allentown ESOL coordinator.

"We know that some of our new parents need more than a letter," de la Pena says. "We need to break the ice with them."

Some of the Bethlehem Area elementary schools with high concentrations of Latinos employ staff to reach out to parents. They visit parents at home and educate them about how to approach a school official or teacher, says Iris Cintron, district coordinator of minority affairs for Bethlehem schools.

Bilingual secretaries help Spanish speakers navigate the system.

Easton Area school officials have begun initiatives such as sending out notices in English and Spanish. Also, ESOL teachers are encouraged to have close contact with parents, says Tom Kopetskie, the district's director of curriculum instruction.

School officials know they need more programs to increase long-term participation. They want Latino parents to volunteer at schools, run for school board and propose new ideas.

"We are not where we need to be," Cintron said, "but we are going in the right direction."

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