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Aurora program works to put parent helpers in the classroom

Parent mentor coordinator Kathy Davis works during a training session Friday at East Aurora's Bardwell Elementary with parent mentors (clockwise from left) Alma Rascon, Trinidad Magana, Ruth Torres, Patty Mejia, Alicia Rodriguez, Eloina Mendiola, Lanell Robinson, Carmen Garcia and Alba Nino. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

AURORA — Nine mothers crowded around a wooden table in a third-floor room at East Aurora’s Bardwell Elementary on Friday morning.

As she drew diagrams on the whiteboard, Kathy Davis reviewed what she’d taught the women over the last week: what student information should be kept confidential, the traits of a good leader, how to work as a team.

The women are part of a state-funded parent mentor program coordinated by Family Focus Aurora that puts trained parents in the classrooms of low-income schools where they act as aides — reading with students, helping them with math and providing small-group instruction.

The goal of the program is to get parents involved in their children’s schools and help teachers provide students with more one-on-one attention — which is particularly helpful in schools such as Bardwell, where class sizes may top out at 29.

Parents in the program commit to coming to their child’s school two hours a day, five days a week. Four of those days are spent in the classroom and one is spent with coordinators such as Davis, who continues to provide training and professional development throughout the school year.

“You’re leading by example,” Davis told the parents, three of whom were new to the program. “You guys could be anywhere for these two hours … but instead you are coming to this school, and that to me is a sacrifice. That’s a good sacrifice.”

Starting Monday, just over 60 parent mentors at one West Aurora and seven East Aurora elementary schools — Bardwell, Beaupre, Brady, Hermes, Krug, Rollins, Johnson and Greenman — will begin working with teachers and students.

Parents are matched based on language abilities — Spanish speakers often are placed in bilingual classrooms — and their comfort level with certain age groups.

Their children must attend the school where they work, but they don’t work in their own student’s classroom. After a parent logs 125 hours in the fall, she receives a $420 stipend. With another 175 hours in the spring, she receives $480.

According to Julian Vargas, an organizer with Family Focus Aurora who oversees the parent mentor program, that $1,000 isn’t much, but it’s enough to keep the volunteers coming on a consistent basis.

That way, teachers can design lesson plans based on the assumption they’ll have another adult assisting them part of the day.

And it’s a good incentive to help get new volunteers “hooked” on helping out at the school, Vargas added, since many parent mentors go on to volunteer with parent-teacher organizations and other school activities.

Parents said they got involved in the program because they saw it as a way to help struggling children in the district and to set an example for their own children.

Alicia Rodriguez, a native Spanish speaker, said being a parent mentor improved her English to the point that she was less afraid to speak aloud in her second language and was better able to help her daughter with her reading homework.

For some, the program encourages them to seek out a GED, take English As a Second Language classes or pursue citizenship. Others see the program as a self-esteem booster.

“For me, this is the first time that I am participating in something that draws attention to myself,” said Trinidad Magaña, a Bardwell parent. “I hope this will give me more confidence to succeed.”

Program history

Family Focus Aurora took over the parent mentor program almost two years ago from Kirsten Strand, who is now an East Aurora School Board member. Strand ran the program through a ministry of her church starting in 2006 by raising funds to pay the parents’ stipends, she said.

The parent mentor model originally was developed by a Chicago neighborhood group in 1995 and was replicated across the city. Strand received training from that group and brought the model to Aurora.

In 2012, the Illinois State Board of Education gave $1 million to the nonprofit Illinois Coalition for Immigration and Refugee Rights to expand the parent mentor program across the state by working with community organizations.

Strand transitioned the program to Family Focus, she said, because only nonprofits and public agencies could apply for the state aid. With that money, Family Focus was able to increase the number of mentors per school and add coordinators at each building.

Threats that the program’s funding would be cut this year prompted parents to take trips to Springfield to lobby legislators. Eventually, they got another round of $1 million from the state.

But Vargas said he wishes there was more money in the state budget for the program so he could put additional parents in each school.

With $100,000, Family Focus places eight parents in each of the eight participating schools, Vargas said, but principals are requesting more.

Principals such as Bardwell’s Twila Garza have to dip into their federal Title dollars to pay for extra parent mentors, or parent-teacher organizations can raise the money. Strand said her church continues to raise money to pay for additional mentors not covered by state aid.

Vargas is pursuing more grants to cover Aurora’s expanding program, as three more schools have expressed interest in parent mentors.

He wishes there was a steady funding stream so parents didn’t have to play a waiting game with the state each year.

“We’re continuously sprinting to get to the same place,” he said.

Skill sets

Garza, who worked with parent mentors for five years at Krug Elementary, is putting her parent mentors at Bardwell in each of her first-grade classrooms and two of her second-grade classrooms.

She said she sets high expectations for her parent mentors and ensures that teachers spend time modeling the kind of instruction they want help with.

“You should be able to walk into the classroom and not know who is the teacher,” she said. “They should be dividing and conquering.”

For example, parents learn the best way to read a book so children are being asked questions that will cause them to reflect and make connections with their own lives, Garza said.

Children in classrooms with parent mentors often see gains in their social-emotional skills, Garza said, because they are being encouraged to share their thoughts verbally in small groups.

“If I could, I’d have a parent mentor in every classroom,” Garza said.

Keywords: aurora, Education, Julian Vargas, kathy davis, Parent Mentor Program, PEI

Posted in LSNA en la Prensa