Parent Leaders Campaign For Change

Parent Leaders Campaign For Change

A Vietnamese boy, sharing his families’ enthusiasm about the Lunar New Year in his school, feels bullied by his uncomprehending classmates who have learned nothing of Asian traditions. A Haitian student, whose parents tell him that respect for teachers means sitting quietly in class, is upset when the teacher’s feedback focuses on his lack of class participation. A Latina mom who tries to help her child learn math by sharing her skills on the abacus, is told by the teacher that we don’t learn that way in school.

Destina speaks to leaders from Somerville

These are some of the stories told by parents who have come together to start a new immigrant parents’ group at the Welcome Project. The stories were on parents' minds when a group of them met with Jason De Falco, Healey School Principal, and School Committee member Christine Rafal on February 26 at the Mystic Activity Center.

At the meeting, the parents focused on the plan for the school's future -- asking their elected officials to add a section on cultural sensitivity to the Healey School Unification Plan.

The need for a thoughtful plan arose from a School Committee decision last June to create a single unified school integrating the best of two of its programs – Choice and Neighborhood. Beginning in the fall 2011, all Healey students will be part of one school community.

After listening to parents on February 26, Principal DeFalco and School Committee Member Rafal said that cultural diversity and sensitivity should have an important place in the Unification Plan.

The draft plan presented to the School Committee's "Education Programs and Instruction" subcommittee on March 8 contains some elements -- such as language interpretation -- but the immigrant parents have additional ideas, ranging from training for teachers and staff on cultural sensitivity to expanding a multicultural curriculum throughout the school. At the earlier meeting with immigrant parents, both Mr. Defalco and Ms. Rafal mentioned that issues around culture have come up in several forums and discussions among Working Groups planning the unification process, and that it makes sense to focus energy and resources to address these concerns.

Working together

“In our community we work together to make a difference,” said Maryann Vo, one of the parent leaders and a resident of the Mystic Housing Development.

 

Lupe Ojeda and Maryann Vo work together to make a difference“In our community we work together to make a difference,” said Maryann Vo, one of the parent leaders and a resident of the Mystic Housing Development. “We have the power and the voice for the school.” Vo came to the US more than 20 years ago from Vietnam.

Over the past few months parent leaders like Maryann Vo, Lupe Ojeda and Angela Corado have come together to share their ideas about their children’s education and to solve problems their children face at school. Together they have formed a tight knit support network and growing community of immigrant parents at the Mystic and at The Welcome Project. They have held three meetings with Principal DeFalco and School Committeewoman Rafal, who represents Somerville’s Ward 4.

The meeting on February 26 came as part of an ongoing series of conversations between immigrant parents and these school leaders. Mr. DeFalco and Ms. Rafal focused on immigrant parents’ concerns and questions about their children’s education at the Healey School. Lupe Ojeda, one of the leaders of the parents’ group and a Welcome Project board member says of the parent group’s successes:“I feel very excited…The first thing is I try to work very hard in the school, because [in Mexico] there aren’t opportunities like here. This is why I try to take advantage of the opportunities to convince parents and to work with teachers and parents to help our children.”

At the February 26 meeting, parents were assisted by trained bilingual youth who are part of The Welcome Project’s LIPS program (Liaison Interpreters Program of Somerville). Along with several parents, Mr. Defalco and Ms. Rafal wore headsets enabling them to understand Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking parents as their words were interpreted into English.

At the March 8 school subcommittee meeting, no interpreters were available for the audience, though several immigrant parents did attend. Subcommittee chair Christine Rafal acknowledged the problem after the Working Groups' presentation; "The School Committee doesn't usually have interpreters at its meetings, but in this room at the Healey we usually try to," she said.

“I feel very excited…The first thing is I try to work very hard in the school, because [in Mexico] there aren’t opportunities like here. This is why I try to take advantage of the opportunities to convince parents and to work with teachers and parents to help our children.”

The request for a focus on cultural sensitivity from the parents group came less than 2 weeks before the March 8 meeting where the Healey working groups presented a draft of their plan for the new unified Healey School. Since November, groups of parents and teachers have been working on plans for different structures within the unified Healey school—from parent involvement to curriculum development. But until recently, many parents in the immigrant community around the Healey have not played a significant role in the unification process. By agreeing to monthly Saturday meetings with parents at the Mystic Activity Center Mr. DeFalco and Ms. Rafal, these school leaders have helped open another door for dialogue.

Though the immigrant parents’ group is still organizing itself, Mr. DeFalco assured parents that while Unification proposals will be heard on March 8, the process is only just beginning. No vote was taken on March 8, with some school committee members asking for more time to allow the Working Groups to complete their work. After the School Committee votes later this spring, unification implementation will continue for the next two or three years. The addition of a section on cultural sensitivity/diversity in the plan will ensure that at least one core issue dear to many immigrant parents will be a priority moving forward.

The parents group has provided a growing number of immigrant parents at  Mystic Housing and surrounding neighborhoods with support they need to become leaders in decision-making processes at their children’s schools. According to parents group coordinator Yessenia Menendez, the group offers parents “the space and the power to say when they agree or disagree with something [at their children’s school].”

The parents in the Welcome Project’s parent group are working tirelessly to ensure that immigrant parents from the Mystic neighborhood will play a significant role in shaping the future of the unified Healey School.

Angela Corado, a mother in the parents group, said, “Everyone listens to us…we are making some change.” She and the other members of the parents group hope “to share [their] ideas with more people. If the group is bigger,” says Angela, “it is better. We can do more for the school.” Together Maryann, Lupe, and Angela have been reaching out to other parents in the community. Lupe hopes “to convince other parents to join the group for next year,” as they continue to expand their network and find solutions to the common problems their children face at school.