PI Original Ashlee Rezin Thursday January 17th, 2013, 4:59pm

Chicago Parent Mentor Program Expands Across The State (VIDEO)

Logan Square Neighborhood Association’s Parent Mentor Program is expanding to 45 low-income schools across Illinois this spring, thanks to a $1 million grant from the Illinois State Board of Education and a partnership with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and other state-wide community organizations. Progress Illinois was there for the kick off the program's expansion. 

Logan Square Neighborhood Association’s (LSNA) Parent Mentor Program is expanding to 45 low-income schools across Illinois this spring, thanks to a $1 million grant from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and a partnership with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and other state-wide community organizations.

At a kick-off celebration on Thursday at the Arturo Velasquez Institute on Chicago’s Southwest Side, parents, principals, state legislators, and representatives from organizations in towns ranging from Aurora to Moline, spoke in favor of the Parent Mentor Program, saying the expansion will do positive things for schools across the state.

Thirteen communities will incorporate trained parents in 400 classrooms for two hours every day. LSNA and Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), two organizations that have already implemented the program in 28 Chicago schools collectively, will provide training for the parents through the newly-formed Parent Engagement Institute. After reaching 100 volunteer hours, parent mentors receive a stipend.

“There’s a lot of talk about the barriers that prevent low-income parents from becoming engaged with their children’s education, but this is a program that has overcome a lot of those barriers,” said Joanna Brown, education organizer for LSNA. In a majority Hispanic neighborhood, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association first implemented the Parent Mentor Program in 1995 and has now seen more than 2,000 parent mentors placed in Logan Square schools.

Brown said one of the difficulties is getting schools on board with the program. She said there can be a lot of “mistrust” between parents and teachers, but ultimately they have the same goal and should work together.

“This offers a very deep engagement of parents, primarily low-income and immigrant parents, who may be outside of the educational mainstream because of a lack of formal education or language barriers,” she said. “But now they can be more connected and have more accessibility, and while they’re at it they can learn English and make sure their children are succeeding in school.”

Here's more from today's kick off event:

Community organizations partner with schools to recruit parents to assist teachers in the classroom. Before entering the classroom, parent mentors participate in a weeklong leadership training from the Parent Engagement Institute. Parents are then assigned to a classroom (not their own child’s) where they are mentored by a teacher and work one-on-one or in small groups with children. Parent mentors most often address the needs of English language learner (ELL) students.

Several of the parent mentors learn English while working in the program, and since its inception, 21 have moved on to become teachers.

“I was nervous at first because I didn’t know what the school environment would be like, but I saw that not only my son was struggling with separation from his parents, but a lot of the kids were having a hard time and I could help with that,” said Carolina Rivera, 40, parent mentor coordinator at Talman Elementary School in Gage Park. Originally from Nayarit in Mexico, Rivera didn’t speak English when she started volunteering as a parent mentor in 2005 in a preschool classroom. Now, in addition to her work at Talman, she also serves as a parent consultant at Gage Park High School.

“I was always home with my children, and because of the language and a lot of different issues I thought it was a problem for me to become involved in my children’s education, so I stayed at home,” she said. “But when I started getting involved in the schools I realized I have a passion for this and the little ones really liked having me there — when they cried they saw me like a mother, different than the teacher because they knew me from the neighborhood, they were comfortable.”

To expand the Parent Mentor Program, the ICIRR recruited 13 community organizations from the across the state, some of which include the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Family Focus Aurora, Mujeres Latinas en Acción in Pilsen, Arab American Family Services in Bridgeview, Casa Guanajuato in Moline, and the Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project in Bolingbrook. Each one of the newly-joined organizations has at least two schools committed to the program.

A representative from the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance in Detroit was even present at the meeting, in the hopes of spreading the Parent Mentor Program across state lines to Michigan.

The Parent Mentor Program was featured as an innovative educational model in A Cord of Three Strands: A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools and A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform.

“We have for years struggled with how to get schools to accept parents as a valuable asset, parents are generally the first teacher and for them to work with our teachers in an academic setting is just brilliant,” said Vinni Hall, board secretary for the Illinois State Board of Education, at the meeting. “We’ve seen a significant difference in the lives of our kids ... This gives an opportunity for schools and parents to work together to help our children succeed and our schools always need extra hands and help when mediating cultural issues.”

“This is the establishment of a learning community that involves both parents, teachers and students — it’s a win-win,” she said.   

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