Partnership helps parents help themselves, their kids and their community

Print More

Last year, Norma Mendez, a full-time homemaker for 17 years, got a full-time job at Funston Elementary School as a school assistant, helping a teacher with students in special education. Lissette Martinez, a once-shy mom who kept to herself, is now a confident mentor to other parents at Funston.

And Tammy Love, a young mother who says she tried 20 times to get her GED, finally got it. Now she works as an office assistant and a coordinator of a parent-run, after-school community center she helped get off the ground.

The springboard for each of these women was the Parent-Teacher Mentor Program, a grassroots initiative in Logan Square that not only trains parents to work with children in classrooms but also helps them develop their own skills.

“When parents are struggling with their own issues, sometimes it’s hard for them to give their children the attention and support they need,” explains Nancy Aardema, executive director of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA). “This program helps them take care of themselves so they can focus on their children.”

The idea for the mentor program arose three years ago when the principals of Brentano, Funston and Monroe elementary schools were kicking around ideas with LSNA, a 36-year-old organization of businesses, churches, schools and individuals committed to community improvement.

The organization had helped the schools win a pledge from the Board of Education to build annexes and a middle school to relieve severe overcrowding. “So, after they got the annexes, they said, ‘Hey, let’s do more,'” recalls Aardema. “And their next target was to work on increasing parent involvement, targeting parents who feel the least secure in the school.”

LSNA lined up another non-profit, Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), to train parents in professional behavior and how to work with children.

“Much of the training centered on developing parents as leaders,” says Amanda Rivera, a LSNA vice president who then was coordinator of Funston’s bilingual and parent-involvement programs. “A lot of our parents had never worked, so the program was set up like a job experience. No one was turned away, but they had to fill out an application, and interview.”

Funston and Mozart went first, lining up a total of 45 teachers to accept parent workers for two hours a day for 10 weeks; the schools also agreed to pay the parent helpers $6 an hour. By 1997, Brentano, Monroe and Darwin had come on board. To date, 325 parents have been through the 3-year-old program. And COFI is training parents at six to eight schools in West Town. Further, the program has given birth to parent-run community centers in two of the schools, and more centers are on the way.

“There was a lot of controversy at first about paying parents to ‘volunteer’ in classrooms,” says Rivera, now the interim principal of the new middle school. “But there is an economic need in this community, and we thought this was one way to get them hooked and to help them while they helped the schools.”

Parents also had to set personal goals, such as completing a GED, finding a job, going to college or learning to speak English. They were asked to keep diaries as well, to get them to focus on their thoughts, feelings and lives. Every two weeks, they got together with Rivera to share their diaries if they wanted to and to share classroom experiences.

“Many of them asked us, ‘Why are we talking about and focusing on ourselves when we are supposed to be here to help the children?'” Rivera relates. Gradually, the journals showed why. “Those journals started out as journeys of uncertainty and fright,” says Rivera, “but turned into journeys of discovery and self-assurance. Many never thought they had the skills they had or that they had leadership skills. But they do, and when they discover that, it changes their lives.”

Lissette Martinez, for example, discovered she had valuable things to say. “I talk so much now, you can’t shut me up,” she laughs. “My confidence grew, and I decided that one of my goals was to find work, and I did. I have really changed. My kids like that we now have more money coming in and they can get extra little treats.”

Norma Mendez echoes her: “I’ve never had a full-time job. I’ve always been home, but I found out I could use a computer and do other things. I was amazed at the stuff I could do. I really got confident.”

So confident that when she was offered a job as a school assistant at Funston, she grabbed it.

“It was so hard, for me at first and my family,” Mendez recalls. “My husband was not used to me not being home and not taking care of things there. You know how men are sometimes, they think women should be barefoot and pregnant. But I told him I won’t be around to make your coffee, and you can sit there and starve if you want to,” she says, laughing heartily. “Isn’t that terrible, but I feel good about what I’m doing.”

In the beginning, teachers were leery of the program. Now, it can’t supply enough parents to meet the demand, and many teachers want their helpers to work all day, not just two hours a day.

“I think sometimes teachers are insecure and don’t want other people around, but as word got around about how beneficial parents were, more teachers wanted a parent,” laughs Rivera.

Aardema concurs. “Teachers have told me they don’t ever want to be without this program now.”

Teachers also became mentors to parents, modeling appropriate behavior and offering tips they could use at home.

“Many of our parents changed their relationships with their children,” says Rivera. “One mother told me she learned how to listen and be a friend to her child.”

Again, Aardema hears the same thing. “Parents tell us they pay attention and make sure their child has a quiet place to study, or they limit the TV time,” she says. “Because of it, they also say their kids’ grades are going up.”

“Rooms that have the parents have scores that are going up,” Aardema adds. “Parents are working with small groups of children or individually targeting those that need that extra help. They help bring down the student-teacher ratio, and there are fewer discipline problems.”

Mendez attests to the deterrence factor. “I was going in the main office and one of the older boys was sitting in there and quickly blurted out, ‘I’m here because I’m helping a teacher. I’m not in trouble.’ He probably thought I knew his mother.”

From the outset, LSNA has seen the program as a way to strengthen the community, too. For example, participants were encouraged to attend local school council meetings and LSNA workshops on such topics as tenant rights, domestic violence and immigration.

Following her stint as a classroom worker, Tammy Love, a single mom of three, ran successfully for Funston’s local school council, where she joined others in adopting a school uniform policy and establishing a parent safety patrol.

Meanwhile, community leaders believed schools could be put to good use as after-hours community centers and that parents could run the centers. LSNA, COFI and Funston applied for and received a $15,000 grant from the state’s Project Success to find out what services the community wanted. The grant was used to pay stipends to parents while they received training in assessing community needs.

Soon Love and other parents were going door to door. “I thought, ‘This is crazy. A parent-led center. We’re not professionals,'” Love recalls. “We were really afraid.”

In two months, she and six other colleagues knocked on 700 doors and interviewed more than 350 families. The resulting wish list included GED classes, English as a Second Language classes, Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups, day care and activities for children. Next, the parents negotiated with organizations like City Colleges of Chicago to provide services for free.

The center opened in April 1996 and offers activities from 3-8 p.m., Monday through Thursday. In January 1998, 250 adults were attending classes.

Looking back, Love says, “The mentor program started the whole snowball. I learned who I was and what I could do. I learned about parental rights in a school and who was accountable for what.”

She adds with a laugh, “I guess you could say that after the program, we got knowledgeable and cocky. It’s old hat to us now. I guess we’re still cocky.”

In 1997, LSNA and four of its five school partners (Funston, Brentano, Darwin and Monroe) received a three-year, $850,000 grant from the Chicago Annenberg Challenge to support parent mentoring programs and community centers at each school. Brentano opened its center in spring 1997. Monroe, which had a center run by administrators, let parents take over in fall 1997. Darwin’s schedule is uncertain.

Mozart’s mentor program is being supported by a $50,000 three-year grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Rivera says she’s not surprised by all that the mentoring program has spawned. “The biggest difference I have noticed is that more parents are asking about parent activities, and they are more knowledgeable. A number of them move from the program to the local school council, or they address community issues.”

Most recently, she notes, parents moved prostitutes out of the community by working with LSNA and the police.

“This program has been very successful here, but it can be done in other neighborhoods,” says Aardema. “The important thing is, you need the cooperation of all the players: administrators, parents and teachers.”

Partnership schools

Brentano

Enrollment: 1,204

(Hispanic, 85%)

Low income: 92%

Attendance

1990: 91%

1997: 93%

Mobility

1990: 57%

1997: 43%

Reading scores

1990: 11% above average

1997: 24% above average

Math scores

1990: 12% above average

1997: 23% above average

Darwin

Enrollment: 1,204

(Hispanic, 85%)

Low income: 92%

Attendance

1990: 91%

1997: 93%

Mobility

1990: 57%

1997: 43%

Reading scores

1990: 11% above average

1997: 24% above average

Math scores

1990: 12% above average

1997: 23% above average

Funston

Enrollment: 978

(Hispanic, 88%)

Low income: 97%

Attendance

1990: 92%

1997: 93%

Mobility

Year-round school, not calculated.

Reading scores

1990: 19% above average

1997: 20% above average

Math scores

1990: 17% above average

1997: 23% above average

Monroe

Enrollment: 1,023

(Hispanic, 85%)

Low income: 94%

Attendance

1990: 93%

1997: 95%

Mobility

1990: 34%

1997: 24%

Reading scores

1990: 16% above average

1997: 22% above average

Math scores

1990: 23% above average

1997: 31% above average

Mozart

Enrollment: 1,273

(Hispanic, 84%)

Low income: 90%

Attendance

1990: 93%

1997: 94%

Mobility

1990: 37%

1997: 22%

Reading scores

1990: 21% above average

1997: 28% above average

Math scores

1990: 23% above average

1997: 30% above average