About 250 eager learners flocked to Rincon Intermediate School last Saturday, but they weren't trying to chalk up extra credit. They were parents attending a Rowland Unified School District conference on ways to give their children a boost in school.
And they were learning in their native tongues.
Some 30 translators with command of Spanish, Mandarin, Korean and Tagalog (for those from the Philippines) helped fill classrooms of the West Covina school with a cacophony of sound.
Clusters of parents sat at tables around their respective translators during most of the lectures, usually conducted in English. Groups of parents would murmur, nod their heads in agreement and sometimes laugh a step or two behind the rest, after hearing the punch line in their language.
Orientation to Society
The daylong Multilingual Parent University was the first districtwide parent workshop sponsored by the 19,000-student district, which includes Rowland Heights and portions of La Puente, Walnut and West Covina.
The workshop was intended mainly as an orientation to American society for the district's ethnically diverse community, said Anaida Colon-Muniz, bilingual education coordinator for the district.
Participants were given a package of curriculum summaries in English and Spanish, referral sources for psychological and drug treatment services, and brochures on parents' responsibilities in education.
Colon-Muniz noted that the student population has undergone "a tremendous change" in ethnic composition over the past two decades.
The percentage of Latinos attending the 21 schools in the district has nearly doubled from 26% in 1970 to 46% today, while Asians increased from 5.3% to 22% in the same period.
The workshop was the brainchild of Supt. Sharon Robison, who had a survey conducted in five languages last year to find out what topics parents would be most interested in hearing about.
Drugs and Gangs
About 26 speakers explored issues such as school culture, choices other than college, communicating with children, and parenting in America.
Gus Frias, coordinator of Operation Safe School, an Orange County Department of Education anti-gang program, addressed the problems of drugs, gangs and peer pressure. Social worker Nancy Lin from McClaren Children's Center spoke in Mandarin about how to talk to children about school.
Some parents asked how to approach sex education. Others did not understand their children's new-found rebelliousness.
"I told them to insist on the big things," Lin said.
Another speaker, Howard Kwon, advised immigrant parents to overcome feelings of powerlessness in a strange country and to not give their children too much freedom. The Korea-born Kwon is the special programs coordinator for the ABC Unified School District, with headquarters in Cerritos.
"Respecting parents--we need to import that," Kwon told his listeners. "Fathers have the responsibility to guide."
Among his audience in a Chinese-speaking cluster was Meng-I Pan, whose son arrived last fall from Taiwan. The kindergartener is struggling to learn English.
"He hasn't been here very long, so I want to help him understand the school environment," she said in Mandarin, adding that it was great having translators.
"I wish they would have more (workshops) so I can learn more things," said Lourdes Vasquez. The mother of a first-grader at Northam Elementary School in La Puente, she left Mexico for California a decade ago.
She was pleased that her group got to watch a Spanish video on the possible reasons why a child misbehaves, while others watched a similar tape in English. Vasquez said she learned that she should calm down and talk to her children before getting angry at them for putting off doing homework.
Samantha Moon, who emigrated from Korea six years ago, said she had learned a lot. She said she picked up valuable tips on ways to encourage her two elementary school-age sons to do their homework, such as reading with them instead of watching television.
The workshop was also an effort to sensitize educators to the diversity they face, said Sally Mentor, associate superintendent of educational services.
"Face-to-face contact is a powerful reminder of how much our community has changed," she said.
Mentor is developing a seven-hour cultural training program for administrators and staff this fall.
She said the district is concerned with issues deeper than obvious cultural differences such as dance or music.
Using videotaped interviews with students and parents, her program will explore different gender expectations, how discipline is handled at home and how communications between schools and the home can be improved.
Communication is essential because sometimes parents do not understand what certain classes may involve, she said. For example, she said some parents were shocked when their children performed at the end of a modern dance class.
"They were moving their bodies in ways that in some cultures are totally unacceptable," Mentor said, adding that some parents were also surprised simply to see the dancers in tights.