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To the pupil through the parents

by Reid Williams

SUMMIT COUNTY – Ivonne Dorantes is the Neil Armstrong of Summit School District parent-teacher associations.

She landed in Summit County five years ago, the place as foreign as the moon to the Mexico-born wife and mother of two. The one small step is for herself; she is the first Spanish-speaking liaison for Upper Blue Elementary School’s PTA.

The large step is for all Latino mothers who struggle with English and the maze of the American education system.

“They tell me I could be the first Spanish-speaking (mother) in the PTA,” Dorantes said.

Dorantes’ involvement is the result of a conscious effort by Upper Blue parents Barb Ellis, Laura Girten and others to reach out to the parents of foreign-born students.

“I was at a PTA meeting and we were talking about how the ESL (English as a Second Language) population had grown so much,” said Ellis, referring to the school’s 340 percent growth in non-native English speakers since 1999. “In Vermont, we had a similar thing, and we had a play group for parents to socialize. I thought, I could do that here – I don’t speak Spanish, but I thought I could do it.”

The parents play group Ellis set up quickly evolved into exchanges. They meet each Thursday morning. Latina mothers bring flan or canapes and other foods. They take their American counterparts to Latino stores for cultural lessons.

Ellis and others explain the reasons behind school events and make sure the foreign language-speaking mothers know how to get a library card or use the Internet. The group takes field trips together, blowing off steam with activities such as cross-country skiing.

The parents snowshoe together, have play groups for their children, teach other languages and speak with experts on kidstuff such as reading.

It’s been a positive experience for Dorantes.

“I am definitely learning English better,” she said, holding up a school flyer. “I can read a whole page, or the newspaper.”

But it’s a difficult barrier for American parents, teachers and school administrators to break. There are fears about immigration issues, trepidation arising from language difficulty, uncertainty in who to approach and, as it is with most Summit parents, a job or two to hold down.

“People can be so afraid to say hello,” Girten said. “So Barb and (Upper Blue principal) John Youngquist went around door to door inviting people.”

Getting Involved

Across Summit County, where every school is dealing with a significant number of ESL students, parents and school staff members are opening up the doors and asking the foreign-born parents to meet the staff. At Dillon Valley Elementary, where about 80 students are enrolled in ESL curriculum, principal Gayle Jones is excited about a weekly meeting that is attracting more and more Latino parents.

Jones said the meetings began in March, and one of the first things the group’s grant-funded facilitators did was to survey the parents.

“What’s happened is so revealing,” Jones said. “We had moms and dads coming to us, and their message was, “we want to help our children at home.’ We knew it, but now we heard it.”

Last Thursday, about 15 parents gathered to hear Mountain Mentors coordinator Eric Aaholm give a presentation in Spanish on Asset Building, a youth development philosophy based on creating positive influences. The week before, more than 30 parents heard about a bilingual home-reading program. The parents accepted books especially designed by literacy teachers in English and Spanish to read with their children at home.

“We want a group at each school,” said Leslie Day, one of the group’s facilitators. Day, a counselor for Colorado Mountain Wellness, also is Summit High School’s bilingual counselor and works with parents at Silverthorne Elementary. “When you get parents involved, it really improves the child’s education.”

The openness to culture is working its way into every corner of education. Secretaries translate forms and flyers into Spanish. Polish parents treat classrooms to food and folklore for social studies lessons. Several parents have taken jobs as bilingual paraprofessionals to help in the classroom and connect with other parents. But it takes time, grant money and, like any effort, momentum.

At the last Upper Blue Elementary parent group, only five mothers and one grandmother attended. But Dorantes said she’s optimistic that her new PTA role can help her bring more parents to the table.

“I’m learning how to take care of things in school for my children,” she said. “And now I have new friends, American friends.”

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 237 or rwilliams@summitdaily.com.


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