It was Friday night, and Kim Wash was exhausted. But there was no time to unwind.

The single mom, who is staying in a Minneapolis shelter, was helping daughter Jamila, 13, with a science project on the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and encouraging son Kenyon, 4, to keep scribbling his name. She was doing so after a full week of classes at Century College in White Bear Lake and two parent-education classes piloted by the Minneapolis school district, one for each child.

But fatigue would have to wait. "Yeah, it's hard," said Wash, 33. "But I'm trying to make a better life for them."

Wash is determined to make good use of the Minneapolis district's six-week program for parents who want to improve their children's school performance and plan for their postsecondary education.

More than 400 families signed up for the Minneapolis Schools' Connecting Parents to Educational Opportunities (CPEO) program, hoping to complete the course and take advantage of an alluring incentive: If a participant's child graduates from a Minneapolis high school and is admitted to either the University of Minnesota or Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) and qualifies for federal Pell Grant funding, that child will be awarded a scholarship to cover tuition at either school.

On Week One, which started on April 14, only half of the families enrolled in the course showed up. District staffers speculated that some felt an antagonism toward school dating back to their own childhoods.

But by last week, after a flurry of phone calls by district staffers and supportive parents who'd attended the inaugural class, attendance rose at the four participating elementary schools: Andersen, Lucy Laney, Nellie Stone Johnson and Sullivan.

Steering a course for college

Class topics include how parents can interact with their children's teachers, create a positive learning environment at home and build their children's self-esteem. Parents also must map out an academic plan that steers their kids toward college.

The Minneapolis model came from the Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE), a 20-year-old San Diego organization that teaches parents how to be more assertive with their kids' learning.

Parents are a child's "first teachers," said David Valladolid, the institute's president. Even before enrolling their kids in preschool, parents should tell their children that they will help them reach their full academic potential, he said.

"These children see the world through their parents' eyes," Valladolid said. "You must not be cynical about their education. You must be encouraging, instill self-esteem. Tell them that college is an expectation, not an exception, a maybe, or an 'I don't think so.'"

A track record of success

More than 400,000 families in California, Arizona and Texas have completed the program since 1987, Valladolid said. That success was among the reasons Minneapolis chose the program, said Eleanor Coleman, the district's student support chief. The U and MCTC subsequently signed on as partners.

This year's pilot costs about $30,000 to operate. The district hopes to expand the program to more schools next year, pending a grant and partners to help subsidize child care, food and transportation.

After recently visiting the Minneapolis sites, Valladolid said everybody was enthusiastic.

So far, the classrooms have been abuzz. Whether facilitators are speaking English, Spanish, Hmong or Somali, the energy and subject matter are the same.

"Language should not be a barrier. We're telling them to stick it out," said Marisol Gutierrez, who teaches a class of Hispanic parents at Johnson.

"If we can get parents more involved with teachers, administration and even with each other, it strengthens the schools as a whole," said Damon Gunn, a district program coordinator. "If students don't have the help at home, then we're fighting an uphill battle."

The reinforcement she gets is why Wash goes to class at both Andersen and Johnson, where Jamila, an eighth-grader, and Kenyon, a preschooler, attend, respectively.

"I need all the support I can get," she said.

Boosting kids' self-esteem

Wash was among the more vocal participants in her class of nearly 20 parents on a recent Wednesday night at Johnson. She brought along a friend, Angela Butler, whose 11-year-old daughter is a fifth-grader at the school.

The topic: fostering self-esteem. The ebullient bunch shared strategies on how to motivate their kids and set priorities, alternating between serious dialogue and banter.

Wash said that when her daughter was teased and called "big head" because she was among the tallest and brightest in her class, she told her to say, "That's because I have a lot of knowledge and I'm going somewhere, baby!"

The class laughed and cheered.

Up next, a group exercise. Wash and Butler gave grades to "Anthony," who was profiled on paper as an underachieving third-grader who does and says little in class.

They debate. All F's? D's? They gave him a mixture, rounding out to about a 1.3 grade-point average.

Anthony has very low self-esteem, they conclude, and his parents must meet his teachers. Immediately.

"We can't write him off like that. He's too young," said Wash to applause from other parents. She smiled.

"See you next week?" facilitator Nicole Randolph later asked Wash.

"I'll be here," she said.

Terry Collins • 612-673-1790