Yelitza Padron helps her daughter, Alison Jimenez, age 4, work on a craft… (Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles…)
At Gault Street Elementary, waves of parents flow through the campus daily. Sometimes the tide is stronger, said parent center director Rosalva Waterford, but they are always there.
Volunteers make copies for the teachers using one of the center's three copy machines — including the one they call la viejita (the old woman) a decades-old, yellowing behemoth that frequently gets passed over for the newer models. Parents sometimes help move classroom furniture for an activity or clean up afterward.
Centers like the one at Gault in Lake Balboa offer free classes that focus on parents' needs, from helping their children with their homework to learning English.
School districts around the country continually wrestle with ways to engage parents, particularly in heavily low-income areas where many parents don't speak English. Los Angeles Unified officials say the centers are one way to make parents feel as if they belong on campus.
In December 2010, L.A. Board of Education members approved a plan aimed at increasing parent involvement. They allocated $20 million last June to improve and upgrade some of the 576 centers on campuses throughout the district.
An audit released last month by the board's inspector general found that if schools adopt well-designed practices to engage families, such as parent centers, it "can result in long-lasting positive effects on improving student achievement."
About 196 parent centers can be upgraded with the $20-million allocation at an estimated cost of $102,000 each, the audit said.
"What we really have to do is look at how we can strategically place our resources in areas that have a really high need for them," said Maria Casillas, administrator for the district's Parent and Community Services branch.
Other centers are slated to receive upgrades with money from school board members' accounts.
The audit found problems at two parent centers that were funded that way. In April 2011, centers at five schools in former board member Yolie Flores' district were updated. Of those that underwent renovations, two were found to be misusing the facility and its resources.
The parent center at Vernon Elementary was equipped with 25 laptops, but auditors found that they were being used only for training and not for any other needs.
"All other times the laptops were locked in the mobile laptop cart. The bilingual coordinator explained that the technology infrastructure was poor and connecting all 25 laptops to the Internet was impossible," the report read.
At Huntington Park High School, parents "didn't understand the district's goal of increasing parent and family engagement through the centers. Prior to its transformation, the center was used for baby showers or bake sales that didn't support students or the school."
The school's principal closed Huntington Park's center to all activities except for parent workshops and classes.
"We were not being vigilant about the use of parent centers," said Casillas, who noted that because the centers were upgraded using board funds, her office had no authority over their activities. "These centers are supposed to promote family engagement. They are not the place where you have quinceañeras."
Casillas said the goal of the centers is to encourage families to support the public education system.
"We need to ensure that mi casa es su casa," she said, meaning my house is your house. "That way, the parents can feel a part of the school and be advocates for the school and its programs."
Though Gault Street Elementary is not on a list to receive any upgrades, Waterford is constantly searching for ways to make the center an incubator for all types of learning.
Merquisedet Absalon and his wife, Laura, have a first-grader at Gault and a son at a nearby high school. Their oldest received an undergraduate degree from Caltech and is in a master's program at Cal State Northridge. The couple donate as much free time as possible to their children's schools even as Absalon juggles his duties as a lieutenant commander for the Navy Reserve and a part-time limousine driver.
"Who do we stay up for? Who do we sacrifice for? Everything we do is for our kids, so when I am not working, I'm here for them," he said. "To help the kids, we have to first educate ourselves."
On a recent day, health educators from Kaiser Permanente were instructing a group of 25 parents on literacy, offering such tips as using "Mad Libs" as a way to develop children's vocabulary. A couple of hours later, a parent volunteer began a crocheting class. Both workshops were free.
"I try to engage the parents in a type of skill development so they can cultivate what they learn and be an example to their children," Waterford said. "When the kids see that their parents are present, it boosts their self-esteem and their confidence."