Turning dreams into goals
Arizona Republic
Dec. 26, 2006

New program provides parents the tools to help kids in school

Richard De Uriarte
Editorial Writer

For years, public school teachers have complained about the parents of Hispanic kids, especially the new immigrants.

"The parents don't get involved," they say. "They never show up for meetings. They don't value education. They don't care about their kids in school."

I hear it all the time. And given the teachers' perspective, you understand the frustration. Yet the complaint stands in stark contrast to the reality of the parents' lives. Consider the sacrifices the immigrants, legal or otherwise, have made to come here, live in a strange, often unwelcoming land, toil long hours at two and three jobs.

Given that, how do you even suggest they don't care about their families?
They must be seeking a better life for their children? Why else would they start out on such a dangerous trek? Why else would they leave the land of their birth, leaving friends and family behind?

A partial explanation can be found in an old Spanish dicho, a proverb.
"Mucho sirve que no disturba." Roughly, it translates like: "Get out of the way and let the experts do their work. You'll get farther."

So it's just not in the migrants' experience or makeup to question the teachers. The parents do their job and don't presume to ask, question, or even participate much in their children's education. That's the teachers'
job. That's why they went to college and took up the profession - to teach.
The parents often are humble, uneducated workers and they know it.

To bridge this philosophical and cultural gap, academicians, educators and policymakers in California and elsewhere have turned to a nine-week program for parents, mostly Spanish-speaking immigrant parents, teaching them how the school system works in the United States and how to help them help their children be successful.

It's called the Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE, pronounced pee-kay). And they have imported PIQE to the Valley. It started this fall within the Mesa Public Schools and at the Isaac Elementary School District in Maryvale. Next month it will move on to the Phoenix Elementary and Wilson School District in central Phoenix.

The program has several key sponsors, first among them Raul Yzaguirre, the long-time Hispanic advocate who heads Arizona State University's new Center for Community Development and Civil Rights. He worked with PIQE during his tenure at the National Council of La Raza and encouraged other top ASU administrators to back an initiative here.

Alex Perilla, an administrator at ASU's College of Public Programs, explains the theory behind it. "From the outset, we ask the parents why they sacrificed so much to come to the United States," he said. They invariably answer, "for a better future."

Then they discuss prospects for their children. Can they have a better life doing the same kind of work that they do? That's the hook. Parents do want the best for their kids. And the immigrants also understand that a better future is achievable only through education. What they don't realize is the critical role parent's play in reaching educational success.

That's where instructors like Claudia Mendoza, a product of Las Cruces, N.M., come in. Mendoza conducts the classes, but she involves the parents too. "I look at these folks and see my own parents 20 years ago." She demystifies the school system, and then gets them to speak up in small groups about the challenges they face and the practical solutions they might employ. "We empower them with information and then try to give them more confidence to apply what they've learned."

At one recent morning session, parent Oscar Retes talked about how his kids learn more English when they watch TV in English with English subtitles; the reading reinforces the listening. Mendoza emphasized how the parents should "collaborate" with the teachers.

Last week, the Maryvale parents "graduated" in special ceremonies at Mitchell Elementary. Flor Retes, a mother of four, gushed how her "dream"
for her four children, that of "professional careers," has transformed from a dream to a goal. It would make a "brilliant future" for her kids, one made more attainable by this "important experience."

You hope she's right.

Reach de Uriarte (602) 444-8912 or at richard.deuriarte@arizonarepublic.com.