Parents can be vital in boosting schools

Monica Soto-Espinoza

CHICAGO – On their first day of training, one mother after another paused in the classroom doorway, unsure where to sit or whether signing up for this highly-regarded parent program was a good idea after all.

Trainer Monica Soto-Espinoza had anticipated their doubts. Six years ago, she was just like many of them – a mother with limited English skills who’d come to the U.S. as a teenager and never finished high school.

With humor and enthusiasm, Soto-Espinoza, now 35 and fluent in English, told them why she didn’t quit on her first day – which is really the story of how a Chicago community group, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, has built one of the strongest parent-school partnerships in the nation.

A lot of research backs the notion that parents play an important role in the academic success of their children, and their children’s schools. While too much parent involvement can cause problems, as happens in some high-income schools, many other schools struggle to foster any ties with most of their families – especially in the growing numbers of neighborhoods where teachers and students don’t share a language, a culture or a ZIP code.

In 2010, a group of University of Chicago researchers, after examining seven years of data from 200 schools, concluded strong parent involvement was one of the five best predictors of whether reading and math scores would rise significantly. And yet, parents are often overlooked in efforts to reform public schools.

Despite good intentions, many schools end up in what University of Washington assistant professor Ann Ishimaru calls a toxic cycle, in which teachers organize events and if parents don’t show, conclude they just don’t care.

The Logan Square parent-mentor program shows it doesn’t have to be that way.

The program is often held up as a model for how parents and schools can work together, with a community group, not the school district, shouldering much of the work and expense. Over the past 18 years, the neighborhood association has recruited about 1,800 parents to spend two hours a day, five days a week for a semester or more in their children’s schools.

The program also encourages parents to further their own education, in the belief that better-educated parents lead to stronger students, and stronger communities. It now operates in 65 schools throughout Illinois, with 14 run by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and the others by other community groups.

In the Logan Square schools, where the program has the longest track record, principals and teachers credit the parents with helping many students improve in math and reading. They also believe parents contribute to harder-to-measure but equally important areas such as student motivation.

The neighborhood association has helped start a teacher-training program, too. To date, 23 mentors have graduated, including Ebelia Mucino, who started as a parent mentor about 15 years ago and now works at Avondale-Logandale School in Logan Square, where she finds great joy in teaching kindergartners to read.

Mucino, who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager, once saw herself as “just” a stay-at-home mom, with nothing to offer teachers, whom she revered.

“When you don’t know the language, it is so difficult,” she said. “You feel … I don’t want to say inferior, but it’s difficult.”

When she started working as a parent mentor, she found she had a knack for helping students. They listened to her. When the teacher had to leave the class briefly, he would tell her, “You know what to do.” He and others encouraged her to pursue a career in education.

“I saw a window opening,” she said. “I saw a million windows opening.”