Quick Hit Ashlee Rezin Friday April 5th, 2013, 4:30pm

Parent Mentor Program Celebrates Statewide Expansion, Urges Legislators To Continue Funding (VIDEO)

The Parent Mentor Program that started in Chicago’s Northwest side neighborhood of Logan Square more than 17 years ago celebrated its statewide expansion today with an approximately 500-person conference at Richard J. Daley College.

In one year’s time the Parent Mentor Program more than doubled its presence in schools across the state, increasing from 28 schools last year, to 57 today. Participants gathered at today’s conference came from cities ranging from Moline to Niles.

They shared stories from their classrooms, discussed challenges and successes, made a plan for where they’d like to see the program in 10 years and also wrote letters to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), asking him to support additional funding for the program.

“We think the parent mentor program should be in every school,” said Joanna Brown, lead education organizer for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA). “There are a lot of kids who need special attention, especially second language kids who come from a different culture from their teacher; they need that connection with a person who can relate to them personally.”

Illinois’ dire fiscal situation — nearly $100 billion in an underfunded pension system and a $9 billion backlog of bills — has threatened to consume education funding. In early March, Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget proposal called for a 3 percent cut, approximately $400 million, from education funding.

“There’s a lot of energy around this program, and when you talk to people you discover that principals are loving it, teachers are loving it and students are thriving,” said Brown. “We need to make that support well known.”

Last year, the Parent Mentor Program was allocated a $1 million grant from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), which worked in collaboration with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) to expand the program across the state.

Trained parents are now incorporated into more than 400 classrooms across Illinois. Training is provided by 13 grassroots organizations, including founding organizations like the Logan Square Neighborhood Organization and Southwest Organizing Project.

Working through the newly-formed Parent Engagement Institute, the statewide organizations train parents to work in conjunction with teachers in the classroom for two hours, Monday through Thursday. After reaching 100 volunteer hours, parent mentors receive a $500 stipend.

But Brown says she doesn’t know what will happen if the program isn’t funded next year. In addition to seeking a repeat of the $1 million the program was allocated last year, Brown said she’d like to see an additional $2.5 million to help the program expand even further.

“Primarily low-income and minority, African American, Latino and other immigrant groups, women are basically underutilized,” she said. “They’re home with their kids and they can’t get a nine-to-five job because of language barriers or what have you; they may have lots of talents and nobody is asking them to use them. The school is the perfect place to open the door and utilize their energy and talents.”

Organizers from the Parent Mentor Program delivered letters from Illinois’ participants to Madigan’s office today.

“We really need your help to keep the Parent Mentor Program growing,” the letters read, encouraging Madigan to support funding.

Organizers also had an introductory meeting scheduled with Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) today, aiming to boost his enthusiasm for the program. They plan to travel to Springfield on April 18 to campaign lawmakers at the Statehouse.

“The students’ response to us is awesome,” said Christina Torres, a parent coordinator with LSNA. “A lot of our parents live in the community, so students connect with them in the classroom and it really improves the classroom environment.”

Here’s more from Torres:

Organizations that have spread the Parent Mentor Program to their communities include Arab American Family Services, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Casa Guanajuato Quad Cities, the Developing Communities Project, Enlace Chicago, Family Focus Aurora, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Mujeres Latinas en Accion, Niles Township ELL Parent Center and Open Communities, the Northwest Side Housing Center, the Southwest Organizing Project, the Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project and The Resurrection Project.

State Reps. Dan Burke (D-Chicago) and Silvana Tabares (D-Chicago) also visited the conference and expressed their support. 

Born in Zacatecas, Mexico, Yuliana Sanchez, 29, a parent mentor at Talman Elementary School for two years, said she wants to see the Parent Mentor Program expand nationwide so that her sisters in California could also participate.

“Now that I’m in the school I see that I can be somebody, I can take an English class and a GED class, it’s never too late to be someone in life,” said Sanchez .

Sanchez works with eighth-grade students and said that because she’s “on the same level” as the students, they find her approachable.

“The students help me just as much as I help them.”

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