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Webster School Ahead of Game in Luring Parents : Education: English lessons, legal aid workshops have helped build parent involvement in school in the heavily Latino area.


LONG BEACH — One year ago, Webster Elementary School didn't even have a parent-teacher organization.

Like other schools in heavily Latino neighborhoods, where Spanish-speaking parents can't communicate with the English-speaking teachers, Webster had a tough time recruiting volunteers. Today, however, many of those same parents are regulars on campus.

They arrive at the west Long Beach school three times a week for free English lessons. They attend workshops on parenting, legal aid and immigration procedures. Some receive individual sessions with a psychologist, and several dozen participate in field trips prepared just for them.

In the process, they become involved in the school and in their children's educations. In one year, parent participation has increased dramatically--serving as an example of what educators would like to accomplish on other campuses.

Several schools have recently begun similar programs, said Dorothy Harper, director of special projects for the Long Beach Unified School District. Research has shown that children do better academically when their parents are involved with the schools, and the school board has adopted a policy encouraging parent involvement throughout the district.

At Edison Elementary School, for example, officials are offering workshops on parenting skills. At King Elementary, parents are learning to work on computers while improving their literacy. At Franklin Middle School, they are being trained as tutors. At Lincoln Elementary, parents are taking English classes. And at Washington Middle School, officials expect to open this month a "parent center," which will include workshops on child-rearing and education issues.

"We're trying to give parents information, develop their skills and self-confidence, so they will realize the resources the schools have and come to the schools," Harper said. "We need to establish a real partnership with the parents."

Schools do not receive extra money specifically for parent involvement activities. Instead, schools pay for such special programs from additional funds designed for students from lower-income families, for those who are not proficient in English and for school improvements, Harper said. At Webster, for example, officials are seeking state grants as well as backing from local businesses to pay for the services, which they want to expand.

Webster, which offers more services and programs than its counterparts across the district, serves as a model. "Webster is ahead of the game. They're implementing a very aggressive program," Harper said.

When Webster played host to the school district's first Latino Parent Education Conference, for example, the parents helped with the preparations. When Halloween came around, they dressed as ghosts and distributed "witches" they created out of lollipops. For Christmas, they constructed colorful pinatas and prepared tamales for the staff.

The number of volunteers who help monitor recreation periods and assist teachers has more than doubled to about 25, said Terry Villamil, the school's community liaison who has organized the various projects.

"These are people who a year ago were total strangers to the school," she said.

Meanwhile, the school's first PTA drive in several years is under way. The president, Beatriz Olivares, speaks only some English, as do many of the members. As with the classes, workshops and field trips, the PTA meetings are conducted in Spanish as well as English.

The key to getting more parents involved is providing bilingual programs and English classes, parents told school officials during a survey early last year. "We asked parents what they would like to have at the school, and they told us," Villamil said.

Principal Jits Furusawa called the English classes "a vehicle to get the parents involved."

Convincing more parents to actively participate in their children's educations, thus improving their chances for success, is one of the challenges facing many school districts. But when the parents do not speak English, it is even harder. At Webster, more than half of the 630 students are Latino.

Villamil said that when she first arrived at Webster two years ago, she was struck by the obvious absence of parents on campus. "I didn't see them around," she said.

Webster began its parent involvement drive by offering morning English classes that allow the mostly young mothers to bring their babies and toddlers along. About 10 people attended the first English class, Villamil said. The number doubled for the following session. Now, about 60 people attend the beginning and intermediate classes.

"I've lived in Long Beach for 10 years and this is my first English class," Gloria Urena said in Spanish. "I love it," said Urena, who attends the classes while her children are in school.

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