Membership in the Parent Teacher Assn. at South Gate Junior High School has more than tripled in the last year, with meetings that once drew as few as 12 members now attracting scores of enthusiastic parents.
Officials at the predominantly Latino school attribute the dramatic turnaround to one factor: the decision to conduct PTA meetings in Spanish and translate them into English.
A typical meeting at South Gate Junior High is conducted in Spanish, with English-speaking parents and administrators sitting in back and using headsets to hear the translation.
Although membership has gone from 466 to 1,455, the upswing has not just been in numbers, PTA leaders said, but also in parent involvement and a sense of belonging for everyone at the school.
Mary Browning, president of the PTA last year, said: "We wanted to bring parents in and keep them. We can see a big difference in the numbers and the feeling."
One of the results has been higher numbers of parents volunteering to work with children in the classrooms, Browning said.
Marion Whiteford, former PTA president, said: "It is very important for children to see their mothers and fathers at school, involved and concerned about what is happening (and) taking part in school activities."
Today, just 55 students in the 3,700-student body are white, and 40 are black, according to school estimates. The rest are Latino. Principal Pete Ferry estimated that 75% of the students' parents speak only Spanish.
Whiteford said she and other PTA leaders realized that many Latino members did not take part in meetings because they were conducted in English. Their declining numbers required immediate action to prevent the collapse of the organization. The answer, they decided, was Spanish.
"We have to adjust to the situation," Browning said. "It would be silly not to adapt to the Spanish majority."
Still, parents and school officials were apprehensive about community reaction. Ferry remembered that South Gate residents resisted the idea of having city signs in Spanish.
But there have been no complaints about the Spanish-speaking PTA, Ferry said, just "a positive response."
Although in previous years PTA leadership was 90% white, it is now 99.9% Latino, Browning said. This year also marks the first time Spanish-speaking members led the drive for membership, and PTA President Maria Caro is the first president whose primary language is Spanish.
Nora Gonzalez, a new member of the PTA and mother of a sixth-grader, said the sounds of Spanish and the sight of Latino parents made her want to participate.
"They are my people," Gonzalez said.
Emilia Rosas agreed. Although she was part of other PTAs, Rosas has never been an active member. She became involved in this PTA because her minimal command of English is no longer a problem.
Her participation gives her two daughters, ages 13 and 11, an extra thrill. Rosas said they often stop by the parents' room during lunchtime to visit her.
The PTA raises money and offers a health-welfare program that includes buying band and gym uniforms for students in need and delivering food to impoverished families. The PTA also refers students whose parents do not have health insurance to a dental and eye clinic supported by the PTAs in the Tenth District of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
To acquaint parents with the workings of the PTA, it offers informational sessions. Here, parents learn the finer points of organizing membership drives, preparing lists of needy families and setting up assemblies for guest speakers.
Caro said: "I understand the PTA more now. Before I only know the words, not the meaning. Now I am learning what the PTA does."
The idea of a Spanish-speaking PTA is not new to schools in Los Angeles, said Barbara Topkis, president of the Tenth District California Congress of Parents, Teachers and Students Assn.
"The school district here is 70% Hispanic, so we are going to have PTAs that speak Spanish," said Topkis, who added that 80% to 90% of East Los Angeles PTAs are Spanish-speaking or bilingual.
Darlene Echeverria, parent education coordinator at South Gate Junior High, said the changeover to Spanish has encouraged some parents to speak English so they can communicate with white PTA members and school officials.
In another effort to welcome Spanish-speaking parents into the school system, South Gate Junior High recently opened its Newcomer Center, which is funded by a federal grant and is designed to help parents new to the country, the city and the school.
The idea started several years ago, when Latino parents began introducing themselves to newcomers and bringing them to meet with school officials.
School officials, Ferry said, are planning two weeks of training to teach newcomer parents about shopping, health care and gang and drug problems that may affect their children. The session will also orient newcomer parents to the United States by working with the city to show them the community's services.
Carmen Martinez, mother of an eighth-grader, was the first parent volunteer. Martinez remembered her difficulties adjusting to life in the United States 15 years ago.
She said through a translator: "When . . . I had to pay the light bill or go to a government agency, it was hard for me to relate. A lot of people go through this, and it motivated me to help."