Experienced partner makes a difference

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The parent-mentor program at Brentano Elementary School, one of a growing number of community schools in Chicago, is aimed at developing more educational support for students. But it also seeks to transform parents’ lives and open new horizons for their children. It worked for Hortensia Garcia, a stay-at-home mother of three.

When Garcia signed up for the nine-month training program, she was a full-time mom who did not speak English. By the time she completed the program, she had gained enough confidence to leave an abusive relationship, get a job as a teacher’s aide and learn English.

Meanwhile, her 10-year-old daughter, Rosa, enrolled in an after-school tutoring program. Within months, her grades had improved. And Hector Uriostegui, 18, Garcia’s oldest son, decided to volunteer at the school as well.

“I feel better about myself,” Garcia says. “I know I’m worth more than just staying in the house cleaning. I can support myself now.”

Parent-mentors are one component of a program that has made Brentano much more than a school, and, in the process, improved children’s education. The community schools program includes after-school tutoring, summer camp, sports and arts for students. It also hosts GED and ESL classes for adults, and family nights for everyone.

The parent-mentor program was developed by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), a local pioneer in community schools. It was the cornerstone of one of the city’s first community schools at Funston Elementary in 1995. Now, LSNA oversees community school programs at six elementary schools, and may open more.

“Many families were looking for various services, but they didn’t want to leave the community,” says LSNA Executive Director Nancy Aardema. “So we started looking at public space and the way to make services available. The schools are where the people are—it was a win-win situation.”

LSNA’s formula for community schools includes hiring a resource coordinator at each school. The coordinators are responsible for working with an advisory board of parents, teachers and the principal for program input, then finding programs that suit community needs.

At LSNA, organizer Lisette Moreno provides all six community schools with technical assistance, monitors their progress toward meeting program goals and identifies funding opportunities. She also oversees the resource coordinators, and makes sure they keep in touch with each other and circulate good ideas.

“There needs to be someone keeping the connection going,” Moreno explains. “The coordinators don’t have time to go to state, city and community school meetings.”

Since converting to a community school format in 1997, Brentano has seen its student test scores rise nearly every year. This past spring, 42 percent of students scored at or above national averages in reading on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, and 50 percent scored at or above in math.

Parent-mentors play a supportive role in helping to raise Brentano’s test scores. About 15 parent-mentors work in classrooms daily, tutoring struggling students and freeing up teacher time to keep the rest of the students on track.

Brentano trains about 15 parents mentors every year, then deploys them as classroom helpers. After an introductory workshop, they spend 10 hours a week in classrooms working with small groups of students. Parent-mentors are required to attend weekly meetings on topics ranging from how to teach math to stress management to parenting.

The program also helps parents develop new skills and boosts confidence by encouraging them to set personal goals, such as learning English or getting a GED. One of Garcia’s goals, for instance, was to learn English. At the end of the school year, they graduate from the program and receive a stipend of $1,200.

Parents who complete the training often are inspired to get more involved at the school, says Rose Becerra, a former parent-mentor who now coordinates the program. Many opt to run for a seat on the local school council, she adds. This spring, 11 parents were contenders for six open seats.

They also become better parents. Connie Quinones, a 30-year-old mother of two, can attest to that. “I was one of those parents that would drop their kids off [at school] and go back home,” she recalls. “I didn’t care what they did in school.”

As a parent-mentor, Quinones now helps other kids, too. Last year, she worked with a 6th grade girl who had trouble with school and at home. Working with Quinones, the girl’s grades jumped from F’s to B’s, and she scored at grade level on standardized tests.

Community school pioneer

Brentano was the second community school in LSNA’s network. It benefited from lessons LSNA learned from working with its first community school, Funston.

At Funston, LSNA hired grassroots organizers to provide parents with leadership training. (A state initiative to develop collaboration between schools, families and nonprofits picked up the tab.) However, the focus on giving parents more authority at schools backfired because it alienated Funston’s teachers and the principal, says Sam Whalen, a researcher who studied community school programs.

A year later, when LSNA began working on launching another community school at Brentano, organizers knew what to do. They cultivated teacher buy-in early, and, at the suggestion of the program funder, Polk Bros. Foundation, created an oversight team comprised of teachers, the principal and parents.

Brentano, one of three schools that participated in Polk Bros.’ community schools pilot, received a $285,000 grant over three years from the foundation, plus another $50,000 for planning and programming.

LSNA had been successful raising money to launch and nurture community programs initially, but sustaining such funding for more schools in the long run is a concern.

By the time funding for the pilot at Brentano ran out, the school was in line to share in a three-year federal government grant from 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The grant, about $2.4 million, would cover most program expenses.

Brentano’s annual budget for community school programs is $128,000, according to resource coordinator Juan Pablo Herrera. It includes salary for a full-time resource coordinator, extra pay for teachers and other after-school staff and training and stipends for parent-mentors.

Since 21st Century funding is considered seed money, LSNA will not be eligible to receive the grant once it expires. “I don’t know how the government can look at that amount of money as seed money and think someone else could pick it up,” LSNA Director Aardema says.

Two state senators and a state representative have helped Brentano and other LSNA community schools get state funding. And Aardema is hoping to get a share of the $4 million raised by the city’s Campaign to Expand Community Schools. But both are short-term solutions, she notes.

“This is a policy issue,” she explains. “We believe [community schools] should be part of how education is funded. This should be a public responsibility.”