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Maria Reyes used to be nervous about going to her children's elementary school, embarrassed to talk to the teachers. Her kids' report cards used to just be numbers, and she didn't know what they meant.
An immigrant from Mexico, Reyes understands English well enough, but still isn't completely comfortable speaking it. Like many immigrant parents, she was hesitant and unsure of how to get involved in her children's education, largely because of this language barrier.
For the past few years, staff at North Park Elementary in Fridley have been working to overcome this barrier by involving Latino parents in volunteer work at the school.
Now, Reyes volunteers one to three times a week, preparing materials for classes and reading in classrooms.
And now she can help her children with their homework.
Victoria Campoverde, the urban liaison at the school since fall 2010, has been key in reaching out to the community and organizing the program. She called 110 parents personally, inviting them to Latino parent breakfasts and dinners where they held discussions and learned various skills with support from the Wilder Foundation and C.L.U.E.S., a Latino organization.
When Campoverde first came to the school, she said she "didn't see any [adult] Latinos around," and was worried. Now there are about 28 who volunteer, and two are on the PTA.
"When we are immigrants, the self-esteem of the family is really low," said Campoverde, who immigrated to the United States from Lima, Peru, in 1999. She is working to build the self-esteem and leadership skills of parents, which then translates to their children's confidence and behavior.
The volunteers started by doing a lot of the prep work for teachers -- "a lot of that cut-and-paste and running things off and organizing things, stuff that takes so much of a teacher's time," said Teresa Marsten, a first-grade English Learners teacher.
Campoverde said the assistance allows the teachers to be more focused on the students and not on the materials.
Taking on more roles
As the parents have become more comfortable in the school, they are taking on other roles, now volunteering in classrooms. Volunteers listen to students read in English, providing an active audience, and volunteers have recently begun reading to Spanish-speaking students in Spanish to develop literacy.
"It's more difficult to teach a child a concept in a foreign language than it is to teach them a vocabulary word in a foreign language," Marsten said. The volunteers ask comprehension and inferential questions in Spanish, allowing the Spanish-speaking students to better grasp literacy in their native language.
Through volunteer work, the program has created a community of staff, parents and students that overcomes language barriers and gets everyone more involved in the students' education.
"This is a volunteer group, but it's not only we're working -- we're talking, we bring food and coffee, we're eating. It's time for sharing, time for learning," Campoverde said.
"They've created a totally different sort of mini-culture in our office," said Principal Jeff Cacek.
When the parent volunteers prepare materials for classes, they want to know what the materials will be used for, so they ask the teachers. The parents then better understand the lessons and are able to assist their children at home.
Speaking in Spanish, Reyes said that the most important thing for her is being able to connect more with her children and help them with homework. She now knows what they do in school and understands the grading system.
Campoverde said the teachers are also very welcoming with the volunteers. "They don't speak the language, but they smile and the body language is helpful," she said. "Some teachers try to speak a little Spanish, say 'hola' or 'gracias.' "
As these relationships have grown, a mutual respect has developed between teachers and parents.
"Because the parents are here, the teachers are more respectful. They know more about Latinos and they respect their job," Campoverde said. "And the same way, the parents see how much the teachers are working when they are helping with materials."
The kids also love having their parents involved and are proud of their parents' work. Kids wave as they pass by the office window or point out the materials in class their parents prepared.
"They are so proud about Mom coming to school and helping the teacher," Campoverde said.
Expanding the program
"Now we're trying to figure out how [this] translates to working with our African-American families," Cacek, the principal, said. "We have some ideas, but we don't have the same resources."
Campoverde said it is much easier to reach out to a community when you are part of that culture, just as she is part of the Latino culture. "The parents believe more in you when you are part of the culture," she said.
Cacek said they have a "truly diverse school" and are "trying to do the best job that [they] can welcoming everyone." The school's population is 33 percent African-American and 23 percent Latino.
"We want the families to feel empowered. Getting them into the school and being a part of the wheel empowers them to have a voice and to have an opinion," Marsten said. "You are here, you are a part of our family, and we want you here."
Bryna Godar is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.