Nearly 500 participants in the statewide Parent Mentor Program “graduated” Tuesday morning, as they successfully completed at least one semester of assisting teachers and students in the classroom.
The event marks the first parent mentor graduation since the program expanded across Illinois last spring. From 28 schools last year, to 59 today, trained parents are incorporated into more than 400 classrooms statewide, from Moline to Aurora.
Attendees, numbering roughly 700, also celebrated the reallocation of a $1 million grant from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE).
The event was hosted at Charles Darwin Elementary School — which had 18 parents graduate — on Chicago’s Northwest Side in Logan Square.
“Many moms, especially immigrant moms like myself, they don’t know how to approach the school, but the Parent Mentor Program opens the doors of the school and they are more likely to bridge some of the barriers they might face in every day life,” said Leticia Barrera, 40, education organizer for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA).
Barrera was one of the first parent mentors to move through the program, which launched more than 17 years ago in the LSNA. She started at James Monroe Elementary School in 1997 where, 16 years later, her first grader is currently enrolled in a classroom with a parent mentor. Her oldest child attends Albert G. Lane Technical High School.
“This is just a great opportunity for immigrants to get connected with the education system,” Barrera said. “With the Parent Mentor Program, we are not asking parents if they speak English, or if they have a high school diploma, we are asking them how much they care about their children’s education.”
Blanca Beltran, 40, a parent mentor in a 7th grade social studies class at Wolfgang Mozart Elementary School, spoke with Progress Illinois about the life-changing effects of volunteering as a parent mentor:
Thirteen grassroots organizations have partnered with 59 schools, 43 of which are in Chicago, to provide teachers and students with classroom parental assistance for two hours, Monday through Thursday. After reaching 100 volunteer hours, parent mentors receive a $500 stipend for every additional 100 hours in the classroom, with a two stipend maximum per school year. Training is provided through the Parent Engagement Institute.
Although parents work in their children’s school, they are not permitted to assist in the same classroom.
Barrera said enthusiastic parent mentors reached out to a plethora of state legislators in the hopes of preserving funding for the program.
The Parent Mentor Program faced an uncertain future as lawmakers grappled with nearly $100 billion in an underfunded pension system and a backlog of bills reaching more than $9 billion, which all threatened to result in cuts to education spending.
State Rep. Elizabeth "Lisa" Hernandez (D-Cicero), a champion of the program, said it was “a really tough year” for the Illinois General Assembly.
“In a time that we really took some severe drastic cuts, early childhood has been cut, bilingual education was almost cut, and the Parent Mentor Program? Forget it, it didn’t seem like we had a chance,” said Hernandez in an interview with Progress Illinois.
She said $35 million originally earmarked for higher education appropriations was redirected to elementary and secondary education, and from that pool of money, the Parent Mentor Program was allocated funds.
“We couldn’t see this program diminished outright,” she said, noting that funding for the program saw some opposition. “They’ve been meeting such successes and making such headway.”
Although she wouldn’t disclose which legislators stood in opposition to funding the program, Hernandez said one lawmaker said “enough with the parent mentors, they’re harassing us.” She applauded participants at Tuesday’s event for reaching out to elected officials.
State Rep. Maria "Toni" Berrios (D-Chicago) also defended the reallocation of funds to the Parent Mentor Program. Along with Hernandez, she spoke at the graduation ceremony:
Two of the schools included in the Parent Mentor Program are slated to close under the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) action plan.
Of the two Parent Mentor Program schools lined up for closure, the Developing Communities Project has integrated parents into classrooms at one; Alfred David Kohn Elementary School on Chicago’s Far South Side in Roseland.
“Yes, the program is being uprooted, and that’s a terrible thing, but I think we’ll land on our feet,” said Rice, who pointed out Kohn had four parent mentors graduating Tuesday.
Rice said the Developing Communities Project, on behalf of the Parent Mentor Program, has already established a relationship at Hughes. Although she added nothing has been set in stone, Rice is confident the program will continue on its course at the new school.
“We’re in a state of flux, and that can be unpredictable, but I’m sure it’ll work out,” she said.
The LSNA has also established a relationship with the principal at the North Side's Joseph Brennemann Elementary, the welcoming school for displaced students from Graeme Stewart Elementary (the other closing CPS school with parent mentors assisting in the classroom).
Kimberly Paige, 36, a parent mentor in a first grade classroom at Kohn Elementary, said if the Parent Mentor Program is implemented at Hughes, she and her 12 year-old child would make the transition together.
“CPS should have done more to keep my school open,” she said. “But since it’s closing, we have no choice but to switch, I only hope I can keep doing what I do at the new school.”
Paige added becoming a parent mentor has “helped her a lot.” By way of working with the students, she says the program is enabling her to help teach her own child at home as well as better educate herself.
“I see the improvements in the students when I help them, but I’m also seeing improvements in myself,” she said.