Parents are their children’s first teachers, but when they don’t understand the language being used at their child’s school and how the school operates, that job gets much tougher.
Imagine trying to figure out a report card or read the school newsletter if you don’t know the language. Not knowing how to interpret a report card means not knowing where your child needs extra help. Not understanding the newsletter articles means missing important opportunities and events.
The Parents Are Teachers program at Godwin Heights North Elementary has been tackling problems like these for more than 15 years.
About 10-15 parents of pre-kindergarten through fourth-grade students attend the PAT after-school class twice a month. Students in the program get lessons adapted to their literacy and life needs, learn how to help their children, hear speakers, set goals and spend time learning about life issues.
“We explain to them what their child is doing in the classroom, from their teacher’s name, to their rights and responsibilities as a parent,” says Marilyn Castillo, the teacher who leads the class and also teaches English as a Second Language.
At a recent session, parents divide into groups around tables to discuss different topics. A banner that says “You never know what you can do until you try” hangs high on the wall of the classroom. Two women play a version of the classic card game, “War,” to learn math. Others learn how to set up a Google email account to better communicate with the school and teachers.
You’ll often hear laughter in the laid-back class, but the parents are serious about learning. Coming to the class for the first time, though, can be scary for them. “It’s kind of threatening if you don’t know people,” Castillo says. “Building a relationship and gaining their trust is the key to getting them to attend and come back.”
Eva Pardo says she “started at zero” when she began attending classes. The mother of five children, she didn’t know how to drive or arrange for daycare. The program helped her with both. “This is a very important program,” Pardo says. “It teaches you to find help in different places. I feel like I’m home when I’m here.”
No matter how big or small, if instructors see a parent is having trouble with school or home issues, they usually figure out a solution. When second-grade teacher Kristen Socha found out a parent wanted to become a citizen, she worked to prepare her for the test,then drove her to Detroit to take it. When she didn’t pass it the first time, arrangements were made to drive her to Detroit again. She passed.
“They help you every time you have a problem,” Pardo says.
That’s a big reason why parents continue to come, Castillo says. “They can sense a genuine interest on behalf of our staff.”
Castillo likes to push the class to do new things, and later this month, the parents will tell the school board about their progress and goals. Participant Norma Montoya will tell them that because of what she learned in the class, she now plans to “take 30 minutes per day for each child to work on their reading.”
Class leaders can report their accomplishments to the board, too. “It’s working,” Castillo says, “because the children are doing better in school, and the parents feel more comfortable at school.”
“She’s always there, and so are many others,” Pardo says. Castillo, a former English learner herself, is modest about her work, saying, “This is my passion.”
Knowing From Experience
Castillo was born in New Jersey into a home with multiple languages. When she was 6, her family moved to Puerto Rico to live with her paternal grandparents.
Her grandmother made sure all of her 11 children graduated from high school, and most of them went on to get a college degree. While she was a big believer in education, Castillo was a child when she saw her grandmother reading a newspaper upside down and realized she was illiterate.
“She was my first student,” Castillo says. “That’s what made me want to be a teacher.”
When Castillo married and moved to Florida, she faced firsthand the obstacles of not knowing English. Twenty years later, she was fluent in English and a college graduate.
“Knowing from my own experience the struggles our non-English speaking families go through, I know it is possible to reach any goal an individual decides to achieve,” Castillo says. “It is my mission to spread this message and help our Godwin Heights families make their dreams a reality.
“This is why the Parents Are Teachers program is so close to my heart. Helping others become literate is the best gift anyone could give.”