Schools train parents as teachers
Arizona Daily Star
Hands-on tactic can yield smarter students, also educates mom, dad
By Jeff Commings
Tucson, Arizona | Published:


Angel Rodriguez wiggles his fingers, enjoying the feel of the shaving cream on his hands.
Then he does what any normal 3-year-old would do, and smears the goo all over the table in front of him, laughing along with other overjoyed toddlers.
Angel's mother, Sonia, stands over him, urging him to make as much of a mess as possible.
Angel doesn't know it yet, but these weekly one-hour sessions with Mom are putting him on track to be one of the smartest students in his class.
In a multifaceted push to increase student scores on standardized tests and bring underperforming schools out of their ruts, administrators are looking to students' parents, who they see as key factors in improving student performance.
Some parents, like Sonia Rodriguez, are taking a hands-on approach to improving their children's motor skills, which can translate to smarter students. Others are learning English and getting GED diplomas as a way to better understand their kids' classes. And still other parents are using their children's' schools to learn tax preparation and other skills.
Family education isn't new in Tucson, or the rest of the country. But most districts now are beginning to track students who leave their family-education programs and are seeing promising results, including high scores on standardized tests, which are being used to lend credibility to the programs and recruit parents.
"I think a lot of our families don't really recognize that they have the ability to teach their children," said Joan Katz, coordinator of the Sunnyside Unified School District's Parents as Teachers program. "The idea is to get parents into the schools and help them feel more comfortable and help kids feel more comfortable with school."
Academics improving
Most of the programs, like the Stay and Play program that Angel and Sonia Rodriguez attend regularly at Summit View Elementary, focus on the development of the child.
But Sunnyside and the Tucson Unified School District, which both have high concentrations of immigrant families, know that many parents need a boost in their education, too, so they can understand the assignments their children bring home at night.
That's why schools hold English and general education development classes for parents who speak little to no English and feel left out of the loop at homework time.
"It's helping me with my teenager," said Aracely Cañez, 32, who's taking GED classes at the Rose Family Center, near TUSD's Rose Elementary. "If I'm prepared, my kids are very prepared."
Cañez said her 13-year-old son is doing "100 percent better" now that she works with him on math and history.
Sonia Rodriguez, 37, said she reads to her son 20 to 30 minutes every day, an important child-rearing skill she never knew was so important before joining a Parents as Teachers program when Angel was a newborn.
"We also write," she said. "He knows the letters, he knows the numbers and he can write my name and Daddy's name."
Programs like this, paid for with Title I funds and grants, work for toddlers because their brains are at the peak of information absorption, said Marjean Buckner, president of the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education. And the constant learning at a young age will help them when it's time to learn in kindergarten.
The Stay and Play program is in its 10th year at Sunnyside, and every week parents — mostly stay-at-home moms — and children play on obstacle courses and participate in interactive reading time and other activities that build motor skills.
If the children have strong motor skills, Katz pointed out, they'll have more developed brain functions, which could mean easier learning and better collaboration with others.
Surveys and test results show that after they leave the program, more of the Parents as Teachers graduates meet or exceed the state standard on AIMS tests. And 82 percent of Parents as Teachers kids passed the math portion of the test in 2005, which is generally the lowest-scoring subject in Pima County.
But family education isn't limited to Tucson's poorer sections. In the Catalina Foothills School District, as well as at Salpointe Catholic High School, parents pay a small fee and take classes that range from dance and yoga to finance and parenting skills.
"One of our missions is to connect the community with the school," said Joan Marrs, director of Catalina Foothills District's community schools program. "Parents come through the gate and are very impressed and pleased to use the facilities that they pay for."
A new goal
To show how much family education has taken hold in many of the city's school districts, consider that the Family Wellness Centers in Sunnyside and TUSD were essentially places for low-income families to get free clothes, food and counseling a decade ago.
Boxes of cereal and clothing still await families there, but interested parents stay to learn English or get that GED degree they felt they didn't need when they came to the United States.
"It's helping me a lot," said Lourdes Barcelo, 37, of the GED classes she takes at Rose Family Center. She said working toward her GED will help her get a better job and now she can help her high-school age son with his homework much better than before.
The classes are free, and many of the adult students take them in the morning and go to jobs in the afternoon.
"For people like us, this is a great way to get a GED," Barcelo said. "We have the opportunity to come to school and don't have to worry about child care."
Adult education is increasing in K-12 schools, especially those with high concentrations of English-language learners, say officials at the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education.
"In states with a large population of immigrants, we have to look at how we can effectively educate them as well as their family," said Buckner. "They're putting a huge emphasis on it. "
● Contact reporter Jeff Commings at 573-4191 or at