A year after winning state funding to expand a program aimed at getting parents actively involved in their children’s education, advocates spent Thursday in Springfield fighting to keep it going.

Since 1995, Logan Square Neighborhood Association and the Southwest Organizing Project have run parent mentor programs in their communities. Last year, these organizations and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights won $1 million in the state budget to expand the Parent Mentor Program across the state.

The program is now in 57 schools in ten Chicago communities, Aurora, Bolingbrook, Chicago Ridge, Quad Cities and Skokie. The parent mentor program trains parents on how to work in a classroom, alongside a teacher, and provides them with stipends of $500 per 100-volunteer-hours for their work.

The funding, from Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), is now however at risk due to state budget cuts.  Bridget Murphy, an Education Organizer at LSNA said that although they were not included in the governor’s budget proposal, they have a lot of support among state legislators and are working hard to restore and grow parent mentor funding for FY14.  

There are 491 parent mentors, mostly low-income immigrant and African American parent leaders working two hours daily with struggling students in classrooms in their children’s schools. Murphy says that this is when the Parent Mentor Program becomes a triple-win.

“It provides daily one-on-one support for early childhood students; it builds a strong network of parents (mostly women) leaders deeply engaged in their schools; and it breaks down barriers between home and school as parents have the opportunity to become immersed in classroom life and teachers can build trusting relationships with parents,” she said.

Recently, at the first Statewide Parent Mentor Convention, parent mentors from across the state and the Chicago region came together for the first time. At the convention, parent mentors pinpointed their No. 1 goal to have a parent mentor in every classroom by 2023.

 “To a newcomer that goal might sound outlandish, but for schools with the Parent Mentor Program, it is common sense,” Murphy said.

Carmina Hernandez, a parent mentor and a mother of four, says that when there are so many kids for one teacher, the children need all the extra help that they can get to get proper attention.  

“It makes a difference when one person stayed there and helped the teacher,” says Hernandez, who works as a parent mentor at Goethe Elementary School. “You help them and you help the kids too. The parents learn from the kids and they learn from us, and the same way goes for the teachers.”

The parent mentor program not only helps teachers with an extra adult to work with students, but it also empowers parents, mostly moms.

Five years ago, Monica Espinoza remembers her first day in parent mentor training. She says she imagined ways to run away. “What am I doing here?” she asked herself. “Growing up I’ve only heard words like ‘you are good for nothing, you’ll never be nobody, because you are so dumb.’ I had such low self-esteem.”

A high-school dropout, working more than 10 hours a day, Espinoza was pregnant with her second child and extremely depressed. She knew there was more to her life but she just couldn’t see it happening.

That was five years ago. Today Espinoza is a parent coordinator overseeing a group of 11 parents and helping to start up new parent mentor programs. She feels lucky to have found the opportunity that changed her life.

“It integrates you within the community and makes you feel like you belong to or are a part of something that makes your family, makes yourself and your community better place,” she says. “It takes people from where they were to where they never dreamt that they could be.”

Espinoza and Hernandez are worried about the program’s future, should it fail to get funding. “I hope that others might be able to see this and realize the importance of training the parents of the students. Parents are the first teachers of the children at home,” Espinoza says.

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