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Schools can learn from program that puts parents in classrooms

Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune

Soo Hong was sitting in class at the Harvard Graduate School of Education when she first heard about what was going on in Chicago's Logan Square.

The parents of schoolchildren — typically immigrant women — were being trained by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association to work in the schools. Many teachers had swallowed their doubts and discovered that parents could be helpful in the classroom. Children were learning.

As Hong puts it: "It blew my mind."

Hong was so impressed that she spent four years traveling regularly from her Boston home to study this unusual program in Chicago. Her book on that experience has just been published by Harvard Education Press, and she's coming to Chicago on Thursday to talk about it.

"The work that this community group is doing in the schools is so radically different from how most of us think about parent engagement," she said Tuesday from her office at Wellesley College, where she teaches.

The day Hong first walked into Logan Square's Funston Elementary School, she was startled by the sight: Parents. Everywhere.When she was in grade school — as a student, then for a while as a teacher — parents showed up only when summoned. Report-card day. A parent-teacher conference. A bake sale.

At Funston, though, she saw parents on the playground; in classes helping kids read; in a resource room planning an assembly.

What was happening in Logan Square, she saw, went far beyond what schools elsewhere were doing to engage parents.

"They're not just changing the time of activities so more parents can come, or putting out newsletters in different languages," Hong said. "They're changing the very nature of interaction."

Since its start in 1995, the program has trained 1,300 parents. Today, 128 work in seven schools, for a small stipend, typically two hours a day. The change in the schools radiates into the neighborhood.

The program has changed parents, most of them women who have been drawn from homebound isolation into a public realm where they share a public voice.

Hong recalls one training program, when a shy woman finally spoke up. The woman talked of growing up unloved in an abusive household and how, despite her love for her own children, she found love hard to show.

"The whole room was still," Hong said. "She hadn't said anything all week. Now she was in tears. It was a raw moment you don't see among parents in schools."

In the next few months, Hong said, that woman came alive in the classroom and was especially good at connecting with alienated students.

The Logan Square program has not only opened the schools to parents. It has opened homes to teachers.

The parents invite the teacher for a meal. A kid might say, "Come see my room." The teacher reads to the family.

"The teachers describe being nervous," Hong said. "While teachers are very familiar with their classroom and students, they're not familiar with the lives and home and community experiences. Many of the teachers who participate talk about how transformative that is."

We should all be wary of fairy tales. Live in Chicago long enough, and you'll see many versions of the next great thing to save Chicago's schools.

What's going on in Logan Square, though, has real promise for schools in and out of Chicago. When Hong talks about her book, "A Cord of Three Strands," Thursday at Funston, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union will be there, along with the interim chief education officer for the Chicago Public Schools.

A piece of a solution is better than no solution at all.

Keywords: Funston, Harvard, Parent Mentor Program, Soo Hong

Posted in LSNA en la Prensa