Parent Mentors celebrate 20 years in schools — but fight for funding

Twenty years ago, a mother of 5-year-old twins moved to Logan Square and sent her kids to Funston Elementary School. But she was too timid to volunteer there.

That was until she fell in with a new group of mostly Spanish-speaking women who called themselves Parent Mentors.

“My name is Tami Love, and I am a Parent Mentor,” she told a crowded Northeastern Illinois University gym of moms mostly wearing identical teal T-shirts heralding the 20th anniversary of the program that places parents in dozens of Chicago Public Schools and more schools around the state and in several other cities nationwide.

The teal T-shirts jumped up to clap for her. Love cried.

Then she recalled the early years of helping at Funston that bolstered the school and her own life skills.

“Because of our work in the classrooms, partnering with teachers, principals and other parents, we learned that we all have something to share. We all can help our children grow. We all can help our communities strive. We are working for same goals along with the teachers, which is to get the best education in the best environment that we can give — and we did that,” she said.

“The Parent Mentor program gave me the confidence and the self-esteem that I needed. I never thought I could be standing in front of you today. I was very shy.”

The program trains mostly moms but the occasional dad, too, to become volunteers in classrooms in their own children’s public schools. The schools get extra bodies to help small groups of kids with reading and math skills and to help with recess and lunch, too. The mentors have weekly workshops and other kinds of training and encouragement. After logging 100 volunteer hours, the mentors become eligible for a stipend for their work.

And nearly 50 of them have become classroom teachers through an initiative at Northeastern Illinois University called Grow Your Own.

“The benefits in this program are not just in the individual classroom where you work,” said Rep. Will Guzzardi, whose Chicago district includes Logan Square. “The benefits extend into your homes. This is a program that builds neighborhoods and builds communities.

“We are not going to let this program lose one dime of funding in Springfield.”

Fiske Elementary School Principal Cecilia Miller said she invited the Parent Mentor program to her school in the wake of the historic 2013 school closings that merged families from Sexton Elementary in with Fiske and moved Fiske’s building to the one formerly occupied by Sexton at 6020 S. Langley Ave.

Though the school had volunteers during her 14-year tenure, the formal program helped blend the two cultures into one — very successfully, she added.

“We thought that was the best way to build community by integrating both cultures,” Miller said. “We’ve seen a difference in the overall culture and climate of the school community. We’ve seen a difference with the extra support we’ve been able to give our students.”

“It feels very collaborative, it feels collective . . .” she said. “Our teachers are extremely happy and they appreciate the support.”

Renee Sanders, a former banker and auditor, started volunteering this year when her son Ryan began kindergarten. “Once he started school, I wanted to be really involved in his school. And I was welcomed with open arms.”

Sanders helps the children who are below grade level catch up with the others.

“Their self-esteem is so high,” she said. “I’m so proud of my students.”

If the program had more funding, Fiske could recruit more parents, she said, adding, “It’s needed especially in the African-American community. We really don’t have a lot of funding in our schools in the inner city.”

Consuelo Martinez, whose two children go to Seward Elementary School in the Back of the Yards community, helps out there, she said through a Spanish interpreter. Before moving to Chicago 28 years ago, she took teaching classes in Mexico and called it her “passion and what I like to do,” but her immigration status made it difficult to become an American teacher.

She joined the program three years ago after the factory where she and a few other mentors used to work closed. So they turned up at the school eager for something to do.

“It was a total change for us,” she said. Martinez and the others have since been to Springfield and Washington “and now we’re not stopping.”

Ricardo Barrera’s mother also was a parent mentor at Monroe Elementary School in Logan Square. Now the young man is becoming a teacher, majoring in bilingual and bicultural education through the Grow Your Own program.

“To me, my Parent Mentor was far more than just another adult in the classroom, they played an important role in my education,” Barrera said. “I wanted to take this opportunity to say ‘Thank you.’”

A voice hollered right back at him: “You’re welcome.”

More SunTimes education articles by Lauren FitzPatrick.