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School mentor program opens doors for immigrant parents

When immigrant mothers break out of their isolation and become parent mentors, they are transformed, and so are their schools.


Special to the Tribune

Monica Espinoza was 17 when she left Mexico to work 11 hours a day, six days a week at a Chicago factory, continuing that grueling schedule even after marrying and having a baby. Feeling overwhelmed and isolated, she says, she sank into depression.

"There was a time in my life when everything was so pitch black," she said. "I was like, 'My life doesn't have a purpose.' "

But then Espinoza, a 9th-grade dropout, became a parent mentor at her son's school, McAuliffe Elementary in Logan Square. She began helping 1st graders learn to read and in the processdiscovered a passion for teaching.

"In the parent mentor program, you learn you have a leader within yourself," said Espinoza, 30. "You have to look at where you're coming from, become stronger, make peace with the past and move on."

McAuliffe also has seen dramatic improvement on the Illinois State Achievement Test, which principal David Pino says is no coincidence. When he arrived in 2004, only about 30 percent of students tested at or above level on the standardized tests, he says. That number shot up to about 60 percent after the Logan Square Neighborhood Association organized the parent mentor and other programs at the school, he says.

"The parent mentor program helps make a more nurturing environment for the kids. They learn more, feel more at home and do better on tests," Pino said. "The parent mentor program has made McAuliffe into a better school."

About 1,300 parents have volunteered since the program began in 1995 said Bridget Murphy, an education organizer for the group. It operates in eight public schools on the Northwest Side, where many of the mentors are Mexican immigrant mothers who felt isolated and spoke limited English.

As parent mentors, they took on substantial responsibilities in the classroom after receiving training, Murphy said. Many volunteers learned English and pursued their general equivalency diplomas (GEDs) in evening classes at the schools.

A significant number have moved up to become parent tutors, five have become teachers and 56 are pursuing their teaching degrees, said Joanna Brown, director of education organizing for the neighborhood association. Virtually all of them have become bridges between the schools and other parents in the community, she said.

"The program benefits the teachers by giving them someone to help with the 30 kids in their classrooms. It helps the kids, because they get a supportive adult who knows their culture and language. But it's hugely transformative for the women who are parent mentors," Murphy said. "Once they do it, there's no stopping them."

The program's successes have impressed other Chicago-area community organizations, and three — on the Southwest Side, in the North Side Uptown neighborhood and in Aurora — have asked the Logan Square organization to replicate the parent mentor program for their own Latino immigrant populations, Brown said. The organization also has been talking with state officials about launching a pilot parent mentor program for other areas with growing Latino student populations, she said.

For Espinoza, who stopped working at the factory after her second child was born, a typical day in the program is working two hours each morning Monday through Thursday helping students sound out their reading words, filing students' papers into folders, leading arts and crafts, mounting displays on bulletin boards, serving as a traffic patrol guard before and after school, and answering other parents' questions on everything from school policies to medical and Immigration issues. On Fridays, she and the other approximately 130 parent mentors attend enrichment workshops. After they put in 100 hours, they receive a $600 stipend. Ninety-three percent of McAuliffe's students are Latino, according to Chicago Public Schools, and Murphy says the language barrier has kept many Mexican immigrant parents away from the school. But after the parent mentors learn the ins and outs of school rules and culture, they become information sources for other parents, drawing them in to school activities and fostering a more close-knit community.

"When we first come here we're lost," said Espinoza, who has two sons, David, 8, and Daniel, 3. "As parent mentors, we help immigrants integrate and not be fearful. We help them break barriers, in case they don't know how to act."

Espinoza — who plans to enroll in GED classes and then a teaching program offered by Chicago State University and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association — says people in the school community have become like family. One of them, Silvia Gonzalez, is a role model. Gonzalez started as a parent mentor in 2002 while going through her own depression caused by her special-needs son's overwhelming health issues.

Gonzalez started in the parent mentor program, graduated to parent tutor, took a seat on the Local School Council and accepted a part-time job with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association that recently grew into a full-time job as parent mentor coordinator. Now she works at McAuliffe weekdays and takes education classes at Chicago State on weekends. She doesn't get much sleep, but she's on track to become a teacher in three years.

"Never did I think, walking into the original parent mentor program, that so many doors would open," Gonzalez said.