Yvonne Chan, Sylmar Elementary School principal, had just passed out flash cards, books and papers to the 35 parents in the small recreation room at the Astoria Gardens housing project in Sylmar when the room went dark.
The rain that had driven the group inside last week also had caused a power outage.
The disappointed Chan was ready to call it a night, but parents scrambled to round up candles and flashlights so they could finish the workshop that Chan and her staff had begun. They were still there an hour later when the electricity was restored.
They were all there with one thing in mind--getting their children a good education--and a little rain and dim lighting were not about to deter them.
So Chan and her team of eight teachers, a psychologist, several PTA members and a Los Angeles police officer went on with their presentations aimed at teaching the parents how to develop their children's study skills, keep them in school and away from drugs, and develop positive attitudes about school.
The workshop was one of a series Chan plans to hold in an effort to involve parents in their children's education.
Los Angeles Unified School District officials said Chan's program is the only one of its kind in the San Fernando Valley.
Most of the parents attending last week, many of them Latino, had had little or nothing to do with the school.
"Parents are very hesitant because of the language barriers and some of them feel inferior. Some of them are new immigrants, and they can't understand the education system," Chan said.
But, she said, more often than not, parents want to help their children.
If the parents won't come to Sylmar Elementary, Chan said, then Sylmar Elementary will go to the parents.
So, for three days before the workshop, Chan and Elsa Lopez, coordinator of the school's bilingual improvement program, visited students' Astoria Gardens homes and personally extended invitations to parents.
Lupe Gonzalez was one of those whom Chan had hoped to reach.
Gonzalez is the mother of 10 children, five of whom attend Sylmar Elementary. Another will enter the school in September. But she had had very little to do with the school.
"I knew there were meetings," Gonzalez acknowledged. But "I didn't go because I didn't know English, and I was embarrassed."
Gonzalez explained in Spanish that she would have difficulty getting to school meetings:
"I don't know how to drive, I don't have a car and I have the babies to take care of."
Gonzalez acknowledged that school made her uncomfortable, whereas she feels at home at the project. "I feel more confident here. They are trying to help us, and they make us feel like family," she said.
Chan said she chose to begin her brainchild at Astoria Gardens because of the large number of Sylmar Elementary students who live there--114 from 64 families.
The 160-unit housing project long has been beleaguered by gang activity and drug trafficking. Last year, the community was rocked when a Los Angeles police officer was killed in front of the housing project in a gun battle with two teen-agers involved in a drug deal.
Such events have had an effect on the children living there.
"Many of these kids in the upper grades can talk the gang language, and they dress in their colors," Chan said.
Chan has visited the housing project many times, she said, but not for such happy occasions. "Sometimes, I have had to go as many as three times a week. Most of the time, though, it's negative, about a suspension or child abuse."
Many of the students living at Astoria are from immigrant families who are unfamiliar with the school system. As a result, absenteeism and truancy are problems.
Among kindergarten students and first-graders from Astoria, absenteeism is about 23% and, in the upper primary grades, it runs about 15% contrasted with a schoolwide rate of about 10%. Students from Astoria account for two-thirds of those absences, Chan said.
She said the youngsters "don't know why they have to go to school. They have no goals, no vision."
Truancy is common among the fifth- and sixth-graders. "They walk the streets, and parents don't know it," Chan said.
In many of the homes, only Spanish is spoken.
Most of the parents at the workshop were Latino, reflecting the makeup of the school, which is 61% Latino, 18% black, 1% Asian and the rest white.
Parents Put at Ease
Besides English, Chan used her rudimentary Spanish to help put the Latino parents at ease and draw them out. Her occasional groping for the right word or phrase elicited laughter and help from the often-reticent parents.
"We both want the same thing for the kids--a better education," Chan told the parents. Her statement met with silent nods of agreement.
Chan advised parents to set aside a specific time and place for their children to do homework and to eliminate such distractions as the television and radio.