Parents fear loss of school volunteers if Rauner has his way

(Photo courtesy of Bridget Murphy and Logan Square Neighborhood Association). Parent mentors gather Monday for a conference and celebration of 20 years in schools.

Tami Love still remembers the day she walked into Funston Elementary in Chicago's Logan Square.

It was 1995 and Chicago Public Schools was pushing parent engagement--from local school councils to PTAs.

"At the time schools had these big ol’ giant signs, I can still picture it, it was blue and white, a big banner: Parents! We need you! Volunteer today!"

So she did. Love walked into the main office and got a reaction she did not anticipate.

There was someone in there with their neck popping and the eyes rolling and the lips smacking, saying things like, ‘Oh honey this, you gotta go downtown. Honey this, you gotta get fingerprinted. Honey this, you gotta take a TB test. Honey, you can’t just walk up in here and volunteer at nobody’s school!'” Love recalled.

After that, she ran away and stayed away.

But a few weeks later, she got a flyer in her kids's book bag from the Logan Square Neighborhood Association inviting her to a meeting.

When she showed up, there were more than 50 people already there. They were speaking Spanish, a language she had never heard before.

"I wanted to get up to leave that assembly hall," Love remembered. "I didn’t because I was too shy. So as I stayed there and listened to this language, I could see and feel the emotion on people’s faces, and I got emotional too because I knew exactly what they were experiencing. These are the same moms that I would see every morning, like myself, with these grim looks on our faces, because we didn't know where we were delivering our babies to."

Love was one of the first “parent mentors” in a now-20-year-old program that trains parents to be volunteers and mentors in public schools.

The program has expanded to 70 schools across Chicago and the suburbs. It’s even being replicated in other cities across the country. Research shows having parents involved is critical to the success of a school and to the students.

"If I’m at school every day at work, guess where the kids are? They’re in school every day," Love said. "And if the kids start to act up in the classroom, guess what? Mama’s right up stairs. Attendance goes up. Homework help goes up. Grades go up. Parents, teachers and the community start to learn to work together."

Organizers like Love worry the 20th year could be one of the last. That’s because the parent training program relies on $1.5 million state grant that they then match. Right now, the total amount funds about 600 parent mentors.

Governor Bruce Rauner has proposed a budget that zeros out that grant.

Love said schools aren't the only ones benefitting. The ripple effect is huge too. She said being a parent mentor changed everything about the kind of parent she has been. Her kids are now grown and through college.

"There’s this world assumption that everybody knows how to volunteer, everybody knows about politics, everybody knows about the power levels and that’s not true," she said.

Advocates are talking with lawmakers and holding events to increase the visibility of the program, in hopes it will save them from funding cuts. In the meantime, Love’s going to keep training new parents and working on public health isssues at her small office on Milwaukee Avenue, where she’s now a full-time organizer for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.