Principal makes school a parent powerhouse

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On this night in January, Chicago lives up to its winter reputation: The weather is brutal. A heavy snowfall, sleet and high winds have hit the city. Yet at 6:30 p.m., Karen Morris, principal of Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in South Lawndale, is heading for her second quarterly “Ask the Principal” meeting, not home.

Despite Mother Nature’s onslaught, seven mothers, two with small children in tow, show up—in November, there had been 35. After a little chit chat about the weather, Morris offers an official welcome and turns the floor over to the parents, who jump right in.

“I notice some teachers give a lot of homework on some days and none the next,” says one mother. “Why is that?”

“My child doesn’t understand the homework, and he says his teacher only explained it once. That doesn’t seem fair,” says another one.

Morris answers questions, asks some herself and takes notes along the way.

As 8 p.m. approaches, a mom who had been silent speaks up. Through a school interpreter, she says she has concerns about her lst-grader’s progress because since she can’t speak English, she cannot give him much help at home. When she sends notes to the teacher, she says, the teacher doesn’t respond.

“I will talk to this teacher,” Morris reassures the young mom.

Then, looking at each parent in turn, she reminds them of their rights at Saucedo: “You can sit and observe your child in his or her classroom, any time you’d like. If you have a concern, don’t disturb the class, but leave a note in the teacher’s mailbox asking him or her to call you.”

Concluding, she says firmly, “You have every right as a parent to be here.”

And here they are. As a magnet school, Saucedo has a running start on parent support. Even so, the depth and breadth of that support is impressive. Last year, 300 to 400 parents volunteered or attended classes and workshops at the school, whose creed, emblazoned on a banner in the joint faculty-parent meeting room is, “At Our School Parents Are Important.”

“Ask the Principal” is the most unusual way that Saucedo lives up to that creed.

While the ground rules forbid naming names, Morris says she usually knows which teachers or other staff members parents are talking about. “I take notes, and those teachers hear from me later,” she says. “I never tell them who says what but that these issues have been raised and that they need to be addressed.”

Laura Tapia, a Reading Recovery teacher, acknowledges that some teachers feel threatened, but says that the majority welcome the feedback. “We need to hear these things, so we can make adjustments,” she says.

Tapia, who has taught in Mexico, says problems sometimes stem from cultural differences. She notes for example that in Mexico, children often keep their eyes on the ground when adults are speaking to them; then, when they come to American schools, teachers tell them, “‘Look at me when I’m talking to you.’ Or, ‘Look at me when I’m trying to explain something to you.’ It’s a direct contradiction for them.”

Tapia says that Morris, to her credit, has arranged for staff instruction on cultural differences and sensitivity.

In filling vacancies, Morris also looks for people who are open to parents. “It can’t be just me,” she says. “An atmosphere of acceptance has to come from everyone: the teachers, the support staff, the janitors. It has to be a team approach.”

Morris says she reminds her staff, “People don’t have to come here; they chose to come here. With all the choices that parents are starting to have, like charter schools, we have to deliver a service or we could be put out of business. We have to remember parents and children are our customers.”

For Morris, accessibility is a constant. It’s not uncommon to see her or her assistant principal outside talking to parents or greeting them in the halls. “Between the two of us, we know most of the parents here,” she says. “Out of 1,336 students, there are only about five that we can’t reach by phone or at home.”

The local school council follows her lead.

Hilda Peña, the chair of the council since its inception, says that many mornings and late afternoons she’s outside playing hostess. “I stop parents and talk to them—you know, find out who their kids are. And after they get used to seeing and talking to me, I ask them to stay,” she says. “We have a lot of parents who are shy because they don’t speak English or didn’t receive an education while they were in Mexico. But they want to get involved with their children’s education. They just don’t know how.”

Peña says once parents get inside the building, there are so many things for them to do, they keep coming.

There’s a PTO, a parent safety patrol and Take 10, a parent group initiated by the United Neighborhood Organization to encourage parents to take 10 minutes a day to read to their children. There are lessons on helping children with academic work such as reading or doing a science fair project. There are cooking classes, craft workshops, family science classes and math classes for parents. There also are sessions on self-esteem, communication skills, citizenship, English literacy, CPR and buying a house. Parents also are invited to work with children in class.

“Children see adults in the building and they think, ‘Hmm, school must be important for them to be here.’ They also behave better,” Morris says with a chuckle. “And parents who help out in the classrooms are doing meaningful things like listening to kids read or helping them with flashcards. We ask parents to give us at least three or four days a year, and they do. They are valuable.”

Parents benefit, too. For example, Lupe Ortiz says she gained so much confidence from translating at PTO meetings that she went back to school. “I worked at Dominick’s as a clerk, but I grew confident and learned I could speak in front of a large group of people,” she says. “So I went back to school and got my real estate license and now I deal with the public all the time. I owe my success to being here.”

Regular written communication is another way that Saucedo lives out its creed. At the beginning of the year, the school sends home a calendar listing all events, workshops and classes for the year.

“Good news reports” go home with students’ five-week progress reports. “For some parents, the only communication they’ve had in their school lives and in their children’s is bad news,” says Morris. “But schools should let parents know that their kids do good things, too.”

Every Thursday, children take home folders with that week’s graded work so parents can keep tabs on how they are doing and what they need to work on at home. Parents sign the folder and send it back.

Responding to School Board initiatives, this year Saucedo held a special meeting for parents of children in danger of being required to go to summer school. It also plans to have an informational meeting on the School Board’s new academic standards, once they have been translated into Spanish.

Morris, a former primary-level teacher and counselor, has run a parent-friendly ship since she became principal of Saucedo in 1984. But the state Chapter 1 money that came with school reform has made the ride a lot smoother.

“After the school reform law was passed, it was an easy transition for us, because there was so much we were doing already,” she says. “But we had a lot of dreams and no money.”

With local discretionary funds, the school was able to open two full-day kindergartens and an early childhood education program, which brings in new parents, who are more open to volunteering. The school also lowered class sizes and launched a fine arts program. And it hired an attendance counselor, and a full-time social worker who helps with parenting programs.

Since 1990, the school’s mobility rate decreased from a relatively low 18 percent to only 5 percent. In recent years, attendance has edged upward and now stands at 96.3 percent, almost 5 points above the citywide average.

Helen Vargas and her child are part of that trend. When she transferred her 1st-grade daughter to Saucedo in September, two of the school’s regular parent volunteers immediately welcomed her to the school, she says. “They started talking to me and eventually asked me to stick around, so I did. For the holidays, I was asked to help with a Christmas workshop, and I had so much fun. People began to know who I was, and I knew them.”

By January, Vargas was a classroom volunteer and had joined the parent safety patrol.

“When I first joined, my little one rubbed my arm with the parent safety patrol arm band on it and said proudly, ‘Mommy, you’re a guard.’ She loves me being here,” says Vargas, who has been encouraged to join the PTO and run for the local school council in April.

More important, Vargas’s daughter is doing better academically. The mother says that teachers at her former school told her the child had difficulty learning; now, she’s on the honor roll.

“I guess one of the reasons she’s learning is because she’s comfortable here and because I’m here,” says Vargas. “I’m here because I feel comfortable, something I didn’t feel at her other school. At that school, the principal was not responsive. I could not get issues that I had concerning my daughter resolved. But here, I can.”

The Vargas family recently bought a new house outside the neighborhood. Says Vargas, “People keep telling me to put my daughter in a school that’s closer, but I’m not leaving; I’m part of the family here.”