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Programs to Aid Latinos : School District Puts Parents Back in Classroom

October 08, 1987|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | Times Staff Writer

The Spanish word educacion is not the exact equivalent of the English word education .

A Latino parent who calls a child bien educado is saying the child is well-behaved. Educacion is the training a child receives about proper social behavior; it is taught at home as well as in school and is not limited to book-learning.

The working-class community of Lennox has an Latino population of about 80% that includes Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans. For residents of the unincorporated area, many of them recent immigrants, the most visible American institution is the school system.

And so the Lennox school district has assumed an active role in providing a bridge between cultures. The district has found a way to fuse the concepts of educacion and education in a federally funded program called Los Ninos Bien Educados.

'Difficult Being a Parent'

"It's already difficult enough being a parent," said Marlene Zepeda, who founded the program for Latino parents of 4- and 5-year-olds. "Kindergarten is a lot harder than it used to be. The standards are much more demanding than they were 10 to 15 years ago."

In Lennox, there are additional hardships of language and cultural barriers, of drugs, gangs, broken homes. For some families there are also the ravages of Central American wars: The yells of children during recess have triggered flashbacks for recently arrived students.

Zepeda's preparation is both academic and personal. She grew up in a Spanish-speaking home in East Los Angeles and holds a doctorate in child psychology from UCLA.

As a teacher in the Los Angeles schools, she was dissatisfied by classes offered Latino parents. Instead of "nebulous" course content ranging from nutrition to English as a second language, Zepeda felt that acculturation and child development needed an acute focus.

Under the auspices of the Center for the Improvement of Child Caring in Studio City, she and colleague Lupita Montoya Tannatt designed a project that would be culturally relevant to the Latino family, which has been implemented in Lennox.

Basic Skills

The program teaches basic parenting skills--understanding a child's development, parent-child communication, how to punish constructively.

It also takes into account factors that complicate the lives of Lennox's students, including overcrowded living conditions, single-parent homes and parents with little schooling.

Marlene Wilson, bilingual coordinator for the Lennox schools, says the weekly classes are aimed at helping parents "raise children in American culture. The idea is to make parents feel that school is a safe place where they can get information and help."

At a recent morning class, about 20 mothers discussed in Spanish with Zepeda the different factors affecting children's behavior and the importance of using specific verbal and body language in praising children.

With occasional hesitation and much spirited discussion, the class followed Zepeda through role-playing sessions focused on reinforcing good behavior and fostering communication.

Tough Terrain

The class also ventures into some tough cultural terrain. Students are predominantly women and the concepts they introduce into their homes can encounter resistance.

When the conversation turned to sex roles, with one woman saying that boys should be responsible for house chores as well as girls, Zepeda dealt with the theme directly but diplomatically.

And when one woman said she angered her husband by contradicting him with something she had learned in class, Zepeda told the group: "These are suggestions. I don't know how you live. But, at the least, you can employ them in your personal relationship with your children."

"We try not to hold ourselves up as experts," Zepeda said in an interview. "We can't change people's life structures. The ideas are couched in the terms of suggestions."

The overriding message, Zepeda said, is that parents are decision-makers. Even parents who do not speak English or cannot read can help their child's development and schooling by stimulating language skills and teaching concepts such as colors and numbers at home.

Los Ninos Bien Educados received funding four years ago from the Mattel Corp., followed by a three-year federal grant. Parental involvement in the school system has increased, with several graduates of the program going on to serve on parent advisory councils, Wilson said.

Intrigued by the program, other school districts have asked Zepeda for more information.

Speaking in Spanish, Dora Maria Solares, a Salvadoran mother of five, said the class is teaching her that "it's better to raise kids this way, not with blows and yelling. When kids are so little, hitting them doesn't help anything because they don't understand. This is helping me correct mistakes I made with my older children. It's giving me confidence."

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