When Leticia Barrera left her home in Mexico 12 years ago, she had been teaching little children for five years. In Chicago, she had to settle for factory work, assembling an assortment of plastic gadgets. “I waited for something to happen because I felt that my place was not there,” Barrera recalls. “My vocation was always to teach.”
Lightening didn’t strike. But Barrera took advantage of one small opportunity after another and grew into a school leader in her community, Logan Square.
Today, she is an education organizer for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) and one of several dozen parents from the area who are studying to become bilingual teachers through a program organized by LSNA. Called Nueva Generación, the program holds afternoon classes at the Monroe Community Center in the Monroe School Annex.
“Leticia is a perfect example of a person in the community who is capable but just needs the opportunity,” says Elizabeth Skinner, program coordinator.
“I’m very lucky to have found this program,” says Barrera. “This is what I was waiting for.”
Barrera first got involved in Chicago schools in 1997, when her son, Ricardo, enrolled in kindergarten at Monroe Elementary. She signed up for the Parent/Mentor Program, which was created by LSNA to train parents to work with children in the classrooms and to develop their own skills.
“I saw parents going into the school and began asking questions,” she recalls. “I sought out LSNA as a resource to get involved in the school.”
Next, Barrera became an instructor in Parents as Teachers First, a Chicago Public Schools program that helps parents prepare their children for preschool. She made home visits in the morning to six mothers and their young children, modeling age-appropriate educational activities. In the afternoon, she returned to the school to help in classrooms.
Last year, Barrera went to work for LSNA as an education organizer. In that role, she provides support and guidance to the parent leaders at three other schools that have the Parent/Mentor Program—she is the parent/mentor leader at Monroe. Her big project at the moment is implementing a Literacy Ambassadors program that will encourage parents to read to their children at home.
On a Tuesday morning in March, Barrera begins her workday with an 8 a.m. local school council meeting at Monroe. When the group disperses, she heads to her office to work the phones. At 10, she drives to Funston Elementary School to meet with the school’s parent/mentors. There is one agenda item: Literacy Ambassadors.
Barrera quickly gets down to business, opening a planner that is filled with notes. As the moms report positive results of phone calls they made to line up host families, Barrera takes notes and smiles her approval.
“Instead of having Tupperware parties,” pipes an excited Theresa Manruffo, “we’ll have literacy parties.”
Barrera asks whether participating teachers have made their book selections and then makes some suggestions of her own. When the conversation digresses, she gently guides it back on track. At the end the meeting, she thanks the mothers for attending and reminds them of the time and topic for their next meeting.
It is clear that the moms have great respect for Barrera. Indeed, as she gathers her belongings to leave, two pull her aside and quietly ask her advice on personal matters. “She’s a beautiful person,” says Manruffo.
Four afternoons a week, Barrera is the student, taking classes to obtain a bachelor’s degree and a certificate to teach bilingual education.
Joanna Brown, lead education organizer at LSNA, says the idea to start a teacher training program grew out of the realization that graduates of the Parent/Mentor Program, mostly Latina mothers, wanted to continue working in the schools. Like Barrera, many women said they did not want to continue working in factories or cleaning homes.
LSNA then looked for a university partner, which it found in Chicago State University. “It was an untapped source that would be great for the community,” agreed Maria Teresa Garreton, head of the university’s bilingual education department.
The partners submitted a funding proposal to the U.S. Department of Education, winning a grant of $1.23 million over five years. The money covers the cost of university instructors, tuition and books, making the program free for participants.
Informational workshops in the winter of 1999 drew more than 150 people; 50 met the requirements (a high school diploma or GED and legal residency), filled out applications and were accepted.
Nueva Generación held its first class in the fall of 2000. Students are enrolled part-time, taking only a few afternoon classes at a time. Recently, some started taking Saturday classes on the Chicago State campus to speed up the process. Barrera did not opt for this because she reserves weekends for her family.
The first year was a steep challenge for participants, who had to learn how to juggle family and school responsibilities. A family counselor was brought in to help them resolve their issues.
Also, many students were not prepared for college-level work or for instruction conducted in English. They had to take catch-up academic classes and English as a Second Language first. Last summer, Barrera made arrangements for ESL tutoring to help with English composition.
“We know this is a long-term goal because we are working with non-traditional students,” says Garreton. Barrera jokes that she may walk up to accept her degree with a cane. Her serious forecast is about 2010 at the earliest.
Thirty-nine of the original 50 students remain in the program. Some of those who left moved, and others dropped out because of child care issues.
“We don’t think we need to go to Spain or Peru to recruit teachers,” says Brown, referring to School Board recruitment efforts. She predicts that because of their school and community experiences, graduates of Nueva Generación will stay in teaching and stay in Logan Square.
On Thursday nights, Barrera gets into her element, teaching traditional Mexican dance to 28 children and weaving in some Mexican history and culture as well.
“Children should be proud of their culture,” she says, noting that Mexican schools often emphasize art and culture.
Barrera studied dance at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, but none of her colleagues knew it until she filled out the application for Nueva Generación. LSNA then swung into action and arranged for her to teach the dance class. “She is a very charismatic teacher,” says Brown.
Barrera applauds American schools for their openness to parents, including the opportunity to observe classrooms. “In Mexico you do not get a parent involved in that manner,” she says.
“The best thing a parent can do is get involved,” she says. “If all parents were involved, the education of our kids would be so much better.”
Now 35 and the mother of a 4-year-old daughter as well as a 9-year-old son, Barrera is proud of her accomplishments. She enthusiastically shares her tales of perseverance in the hope that they will motivate the mothers she works with.
“If they see that it’s going to take me 10 years to get my teaching degree,” she says, “they can then realize that six months for a GED is not that much.”