One of the things that matters most in school reform is the opportunity for parents to get more involved in their children’s school and education. My children’s school, Darwin Elementary, along with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) and three other elementary schools formed an Annenberg Challenge Network where one of our main goals was more meaningful parent involvement with students and teachers. It’s the basis for our Parent-Teacher Mentor Program, where parents receive training and then work a minimum of 100 hours a semester in a classroom. At the end of the semester, there’s a graduation for the Parent Mentors and we receive a stipend. It’s been a life-changing experience for me and my kids.I started working at Darwin School as a volunteer in the pre-kindergarten classes. It was the first time I’d ever volunteered, and I did it because my kids asked me to. I was a little nervous because I never saw myself working with kids. I had a short temper and not a lot of patience. Or so I thought. But when I volunteered in the Pre-K classes and then began the Parent-Teacher Mentor Program, I realized that you don’t need special training in education to do it. It’s more about knowing how to love and understand children and knowing how to give them attention and listen to them.
The Parent-Teacher Mentor Program gives parents a chance to get involved in the classroom working with the students. It’s a total hands-on experience. You’re not there as the teacher’s gopher; you’re there as a partner with the teachers in helping to make a difference for the kids and their work. The training we received isn’t something that is just used in the school. It can also be helpful outside the school in dealing with your own kids in terms of patience, helping them with their homework and listening to them. It’s also helpful personally, because it helps you focus on your goals and what you want out of life.
I got involved in the school because of my kids. But I stayed involved because of me. The volunteer work I did made a difference to a lot of kids, and that made me feel great. At the time I began the Parent-Teacher Mentor Program, I had some negative people around me who thought 1 couldn’t do it, but I learned through the training to overlook obstacles such as negative people and surround myself with people who were going to support me. My mom, at one time, was one of those negative people. But I learned what I really wanted and needed, and I let her know respectfully that regardless of what she thought, I was going to go ahead with my goals. I stopped looking to her for support and approval and instead looked to others in my family and community who would support and encourage me. My involvement in the school and the Parent Teacher Mentor Program really helped me clarify and achieve my goals.
Pastor Bruce Ray of Kimball Avenue Evangelical Congregational Church, saw me as a leader in the community, and he recommended me as a member of the LSNA Governance Council. The coordinator of the Reform Board’s Parents as Teachers First program also saw potential in me and recruited me to work in that program. I realized that I have a lot to offer kids and that I really like working with them. I went through a child care provider training program and am working to become a licensed child care provider. If I choose, I can open my own day-care business. I am now a substitute teacher at the Christian Care Center. The other Parent Mentors at my school encouraged me to run for chairperson of the LSNA Education Committee so I could have a stronger voice in the education improvement efforts in the community. Eventually my mom saw me achieve the goals I worked so hard on and became one of my main supporters.
I think this type of parent involvement program is very valuable, and I think parents in other schools should be encouraged the way that we at Darwin and the other Logan Square network schools were. So how do I think this program can be expanded? One way is for schools to put aside money to offer stipends. I think stipends are important because they can bring in people to the school that otherwise might not have thought to get involved. I was volunteering at the school anyway, but I know a lot of parents who got involved because of the stipend. Even so, I’ve seen how working at the school changed them and the way they think about themselves and work with their kids.
If a school can’t afford to offer stipends, it can just show a genuine interest in having parents involved. For example, many parents are interested because they want to learn something new. They can be offered training or classes that can help them and their families, like GED or ESL classes. In my case, I got the opportunity to learn how to use computers by helping in the library. While the librarian was teaching half the class, I helped the other half work individually in the “Readers are Winners” program.
Another way to make parents feel welcome is to all them to volunteer just one or two days a week, or even a couple of hours, but still give them the initial training so they feel prepared to go to the classroom, and they have some sort of structure.
As a parent, I suggest that all parents get involved in their children’s education. I wish I had gotten involved sooner, but, if anything, my experience has taught me that it’s never too late when it comes to your child’s education and to being a greater part of their lives.
Nayda Medina is the mother of three children, all of whom attend Chicago public schools.