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Ames Parent Mentors Enhancement to Everything

Gloria Bellido had never served as a school volunteer before, nor had she thought of herself as a leader. But within four months of the day her daughter enrolled at Ames Middle School in Logan Square, that all changed.

Suddenly Bellido found herself working as a classroom assistant, a family book group leader, a truant outreach worker, a member of the local school council and chair of the school’s No Child Left Behind Committee.

Gloria Bellido, a parent mentor at Ames Middle School in Logan Square, assists students Rossi Vizcaino, Tada Ward and Solimar Torres in a seventh-grade science class.

While Bellido is one of the more active parents at Ames, she is hardly unusual. Inner-city schools often bemoan the lack of parental involvement, but Ames has it in spades: 20 parents are at the school almost daily volunteering or working for modest wages at a variety of jobs through Logan Square Neighborhood Association’s Parent Mentor Program.

“It’s an enhancement to everything we do,” said Ames Principal Thomas Hoffman, who credits the program’s truancy outreach efforts for helping to raise student attendance more than two percentage points in the past two years.

LSNA launched the Parent Mentor Program in 1995 as a way to give parents, mainly Latino women, the skills and confidence to get more involved in their children’s education. Since then, the program has trained over 1,300 parents as classroom mentors for struggling students at nine neighborhood elementary schools. At Ames, mentors are paid for additional work such as truancy outreach through an Elev8 grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies.

But learning how to assist students and school staff is just the beginning. Parent mentors are encouraged to become leaders in their schools and politically active in their communities. And they are urged to pursue personal goals, such as finding employment or furthering their education. Many have gone on to take ESL or GED classes offered at Ames and four other Logan Square elementary schools.

Maria Marquez, a former parent mentor who now coordinates that program at Ames, went even further. She enrolled in LSNA's “Grow Your Own” program, which helps Logan Square residents earn undergraduate degrees in education and reduce the bilingual teacher shortage. To date, 18 other parent mentors have also enrolled. “Had it had it not been for the Parent Mentor Program, I would not be going to Northeastern [University],” Marquez said.

For Bellido, joining the program was no less transformative. As a former substance abuse counselor with an associate’s degree in social services, she had always enjoyed helping people. But she felt timid about speaking her mind. “She was kind of quiet when she first started, not wanting to say a lot,” Marquez recalled.

Gloria Bellido with her daughter, Jaileen Martinez, a seventh-grader at Ames Middle School.

But in the safety of the parent mentor group—LSNA trained 10 this fall—she began to speak up, said Marquez.

The real turning point for Bellido came at a meeting of the school’s No Child Left Behind Advisory Committee, which monitors the use of its federal funds. At one point, the principal invited parents on the committee to share concerns, “but they were scared to speak up because of the language barrier,” she recalled. 

So Bellido, who is bilingual, having come from Puerto Rico in early childhood, decided to share a common concern. Ames students who rode the city buses to school couldn’t get reduced fare because the school lacked student IDs, she explained.

The other mothers were impressed, Marquez recalls, and Hoffman agreed to fix the problem. Later in the meeting, when they were asked to select officers for the committee, they quickly nominated Bellido as chair.

“I was like 'Me?' Bellido recalls. “They were like, 'Yes, you.'”

Bellido, a friendly woman with a ready smile, initially signed-up as a parent mentor because her daughter had heard the school was unsafe, a rumor which proved to be untrue.

The program became her gateway to further opportunities. “The more involved I got with my daughter’s school,” she said, “the more I wanted to be involved.”

Her new-found interest surprised her daughter, Jaileen Martinez. “I was shocked about it. I just thought of my mom as a house mom.”

And, said the 7th-grader, “I was kind of scared because I thought she would embarrass me.”

Gloria Bellido (right) attended an Elev8 national conference in Las Cruces, N.M., where she met parent, staff and students as well as Gara LaMarche (second from left), president and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies.

But she needn't have worried. Her friends thought Bellido was cool. “When they see me they're like, 'Where's your mom?'” And rather than embarrassed by her mother’s involvement, Jaileen found herself inspired. “She's so into it. Her trying to help somebody makes me want to do the same. She motivates me.”

Questioning Authority

Parents in neighborhoods like Logan Square often don't realize how eager schools are for their participation, said Marquez. That's especially true for those immigrating from Mexico or other Central American countries, she explained.

In Mexico, parents don’t ever question the teacher or principal, she said. “You can't come into the classroom because it’s invading their domain.”

But the parent mentor training makes it clear how much they are valued, not only by recruiting them to serve in a variety of additional roles—safety patrol, truancy outreach, book club leader—but by building their confidence.

Before parents step foot in the classroom, they get two weeks of training on the school's math and reading curriculum and also on personal development and leadership. The training continues for two hours a week throughout the school year.

Parents without degrees often imagine they don’t have much to offer the school, said Leticia Barrera, another Parent Mentor alumna who now manages the program for LSNA. “When parents realize they have lots of skills and talents they can offer to the school, they feel important and useful.”

Even Bellido, who attended St. Augustine College in Chicago, said she was skeptical at first about whether she had anything to contribute. But the encouragement of the LSNA trainers and the camaraderie that developed among the mothers convinced her try out new roles, she said.

Through the training, parents also learn that they have the right to speak up to authority, said Barrera—whether to the principal, the alderman or their state and federal representatives. “They don’t realize how much power they can have. As soon as they know, they start making phone calls.”

During last school year's training, a group of mothers suddenly decided to visit the alderman and demand traffic-calming measures around the school: They got their way. After this year's initial training, parents spontaneously teamed-up to go door-to-door encouraging their neighbors to vote.

Bellido said she got together with other parent mentors to phone federal lawmakers on behalf of legislation to help children of undocumented immigrants attend college.

“We're speaking out and not being afraid,” she said. “We're not just parents now. We’re being heard as a group and working together.”

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