A thriving parent center sends test scores and parent involvement soaring
Esmeralda Fabián Romero | November 6, 2017
Four years ago, Amestoy Elementary Principal Hugh Ryan made a strategic decision to invest in parents.
He set high goals for parent participation and enlisted teachers in that effort and in making sure parents felt valued. He opened the parent center with district funds and gave its part-time parent representatives his full support — and freedom to run the center the way they felt would best help parents.
As a result, parents have learned and thrived. But not just the parents.
In two years, students at the neighborhood LA Unified school increased their math scores on state tests more than 75 percent. English language arts scores rose nearly 50 percent. Reclassification of English learners doubled in one year.
“The role of the reclassification coordinator was key as she met with each one of the parents of those students. We used a personalized approach working with those close to 60 students,” said Ryan, who has been Amestoy’s principal for 10 years in the South Bay community of Gardena. Amestoy serves about 800 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, 70 percent of whom are Latino and 85 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. In Gardena, Latinos make up for 40 percent of the community’s population, and 52 percent speak a primary language other than English.
Ryan called parent involvement “intrinsical” to the higher test scores. At the parent center, parents were given sample questions from the state tests and shown what students were expected to know at each grade level. Parents of English learners were also briefed on the type of questions included in the test for reclassification.
This year state test results (CAASPP) showed that 30 percent of students were proficient in math, up from 17 percent in 2015. Almost 31 percent of students were proficient in English, up from 21 percent in 2015. Amestoy’s reclassification rate went from 12 percent in 2015-16 to 24 percent this year, surpassing the district’s average of 21 percent. He said the increase is a direct result of parent engagement.
‘WE HAVE TOTAL CONFIDENCE FROM OUR PRINCIPAL’
Martha Novoa, one of two parents employed at Amestoy’s parent center, credits much of the success of the center to the guidance and confidence the principal provides to her and the volunteers.
“We have visited other parents centers in the district and not all of them are like ours, unfortunately. They have told us sometimes the administrations don’t allow them to do what they believe is good. But in our case that is the opposite, we have total confidence from our principal. We are very grateful,” she said.
“Parent involvement has been an important part of my message from day one,” Ryan said. “For the last four years, the district’s directive has added to that. And it’s really the work of parent reps. They have the freedom to create the best environment possible, but they also know that we have a goal of increasing parent participation, and they have been meeting that goal.”
Increasing parent engagement participation is one of the five priorities of the school, as well as safety, a welcoming environment, early literacy, and quality of instruction.
Ryan said participation can be measured by how many show up to parent conferences and the twice-monthly workshops. For the last two years, they’ve had 100 percent participation in the school’s parent survey.
“Handing out a survey to parents and having all of them responding to it just show the high level of commitment from their part, but also from the staff coordinating it,” Ryan said.
About 60 parents volunteer regularly in Amestoy’s parent center. Ryan’s goal is to increase that number by 10 percent next year.
‘A CLASSROOM FOR PARENTS’
LA Unified’s first parent center opened in 1990 on the campus of 75th Street Elementary. In 2011, the school board approved $20 million to improve centers for families at every school site to create “a classroom for parents.”
There are now more than 500 parent centers at LA Unified schools, and 145 have been renovated with district funding. In August, funding was approved to renovate 85 more centers and equip them with personal computers for parents. And 192 more are expected to be renovated by 2018. The cost for a new parent center runs from $65,000 to $100,000. Each has one or two part-time representatives, who are paid $17 per hour.
Rosalinda Lugo, administrator for LA Unified’s parent and community services, said in an interview at the start of the school year that the district’s parent volunteer program screening process is a “huge endeavor” but it is “key to the success” of the centers.
She said the center’s goal this year is to train parents on the new statewide online tool to measure school performance, called the California School Dashboard. Also, parent centers are key to the district’s goal of enrolling 100 percent of all parents district-wide in the PASSport parent portal by 2019.
“Superintendent (Michelle) King has set the goal of having all our parents enrolled in the portal and using it actively,” Lugo said.
The parent centers are also helping families use its new unified enrollment system. The online platform is a one-stop system that helps parents apply to schools of choice that offer specialized programs within the district.
Amestoy’s enrollment has been steady for the last three years with about 800 students. This year it decreased slightly to 790 students, but Ryan expects it to grow, as this year the school added a STEAM Academy and Multilingual/Multicultural magnet for grades 1-5. A state early education center is also located on the campus.
Ryan said Amestoy’s parent center operates with federal Title I funds, which support low-income students, and LA Unified funds designated for the centers.
“Kids learn through their parents’ experiences. If they don’t have their parents engaged in their education, then it is entirely left to us as educators,” Ryan said. More than ever, it’s important to have parents engaged because of the rapid changes happening in education, from new curriculum and assessments to technology, he said.
Family engagement is so important at Amestoy that teachers are being evaluated on upping their participation, Ryan said.
“I don’t know exactly what their UTLA contract says about teachers’ evaluations, what I know is that LAUSD has a teaching-learning framework with standards for the teachers in communicating with families, engaging families,” Ryan said. Whether “they are evaluated or not on it, they are receiving training for it and they’re expected to value this component as one of the top school goals.”
‘VALUED AND HAPPY’
Sandra Marin started volunteering at Amestoy because her son was struggling.
“I started coming to school to support my son when he started preschool. He was having a hard time. I wanted him to know that mommy and teacher were partners working together for him,” Marin said. “I never really volunteered to help my community, I volunteered to help my son. But in the end it grew because of me helping, it helped all the class and also my community.”
Marin says knowing that makes her feel “valued and happy.” That’s why she attends the workshops in literacy and math, like one held last month where she learned tips to help with homework. The center has a turnout of 25 to 30 parents to the twice-monthly workshops, which cover topics like literacy, mental health, and suicide prevention.
At the last workshop, school facilitators and instructional staff handed out materials for parents to practice spelling exercises with their children and other activities. The parents were talking and laughing together and cheered for the winners of a raffle.
“I feel like I made new friends, there’s always someone I can talk to. I feel really comfortable,” said Marin, whose son is now in transitional kindergarten. She has seen improvement in his behavior and good progress in class.
But it wasn’t as easy and rewarding at the beginning. She remembers feeling “isolated” and her efforts were not having the results that she expected.
“When I started coming to my son’s classroom, it was even worse. He would cry when he saw me in the classroom to be with me, and I felt confused. I was worried, but the parent reps told me I could use the parents center to volunteer and got the right support I needed.”
Marin appreciates being able to support the school on her own terms, without feeling any pressure or commitment. “Helping from home felt like a chore, while coming here is an experience where I see friends and where I feel valued, which makes me feel even more eager to volunteer at school.”
‘WE’RE HERE TO HELP YOU’
Xochitl Felix, is the other parent representative in Amestoy’s parent center. She started volunteering six years ago at the school to help her children, and for the last three years she has worked part-time as a parent representative. Her work has helped to open the school’s doors to other parents like her, including immigrant families.
Felix said for many of them the biggest barriers can be language, but since she is bilingual in Spanish, she has been able to tell them: “Don’t be afraid, don’t let the language to stop you. You’re welcome here, and we’re here to help you,” she said.
She said one of the most common concerns for parents is not knowing how to communicate with the teacher, especially if they don’t speak English. “We are here to be that liaison and translate for them. We don’t want language to be a barrier.”
A district-supplied translator is present at all workshops at the parent center to translate for parents who speak Spanish, Mandarin, Armenian, and other languages.
“Helping my kids’ teachers and being visible at school for my kids have had a very positive impact academically,” Felix said. “I definitively have seen improvement.”
Novoa said she couldn’t ask for a better job. She gets to be close to her kids, help other parents support their own kids, and have an income at the same time.
When she started working in the center three years ago, she said she wanted to create a very different environment from the one her parents had when she was in school.
“My mother couldn’t even get close to the office. She was afraid. We want our parents to feel welcomed and appreciated.”