Leticia Barrera spent her first six years in the United States isolated and alone. She immigrated to the United States from Mexico and was living in a basement in the city of Chicago, not knowing any English and only working at cleaning jobs.
“I was in the darkness,” says Barrera.
Everything changed when Barrera became a parent mentor at her son’s school through the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), a Chicago-based community group that breaks down the barriers between parents and schools by placing parents in classrooms in low-income schools. According to Joanna Brown, LSNA Lead Education Organizer, the schools that partner with LSNA are over 90 percent Latino and low-income.
Once parents are recruited, they are trained through the LSNA program and then placed in classrooms where they help teachers for two hours each morning. This began what Barrera calls the “second chapter” of her life.
“I was so worried to leave my son at school. As an immigrant from Mexico, everything was new, including the education system. I noticed that there were parents in and out of the school and some parents stayed inside the building. So I started asking questions,” Barrera recalls. “My life changed totally.”
The main goal for LSNA is to open the door for parents and make them welcome in their children’s school. Brown says she hopes the program “provides the opportunity for parents to do meaningful work, help the students, help the teacher, learn about the teachers and form relationships with them.”
Since the program began in 1995, around 1300 parents have been trained and placed in the classroom. These parents were not only tutoring kids in math and reading but also going places where teachers could not.
In one case, a LSNA partner school had a dismal attendance rate – less than 80 percent of students were coming in to school each day. The principal was at a loss for how to get kids to come in to school. That’s where the parent mentors stepped in. They went to homes of truant students and talked to parents about their child’s attendance.
“This is a parent to parent situation. They’re not coming from the system, not coming from the police department. They’re just going to the parent,” says Brown.
Of the 600 home visits, at least 80 percent of those parents came into the school to meet with the counselor and work out a plan to get their kids back on track. For Barrera, her first parent mentor assignment was helping in a Spanish language classroom. She appreciated being able to help, even while she herself was still learning English.
“We’re going to reach parents in different communities. I feel that I have a voice to reach many immigrants,” says Barrera.
According to Brown, most of the students in LSNA partner schools come from Spanish-speaking homes and are still attempting to become bilingual by third grade.
“The parents are actually providing support that schools need when the system doesn’t have that support. So they’re filling real gaps,” says Brown.
Helping Parents Help Themselves
But parents aren’t just helping the students and teachers in the classroom, they’re helping themselves, too.
Parent mentors set goals for themselves when they go through the training program. For Barrera, her first goal was to go back to school.
“I went back and I completed my GED in a year. I know now that I have to set up personal goals. Especially immigrants, we think first about others and we forget ourselves,” Barrera says. “I realized that I have potential.”
LSNA is also helping parents to realize their potential through outside workshops with mentors from all schools, that focus on topics ranging from how to teach math to your children to immigrant rights. Parent mentors also took a trip to Springfield, Illinois where they met with legislators and developed skills in leadership.
Although Barrera’s time as a parent mentor is over, her involvement with LSNA and education is not. She now oversees the parent mentor program in four schools and will receive her degree in teaching from Northwestern University next year. Barrera is not the only parent to stay involved. The program has changed parents so much that LSNA started a Grow Your Own Teachers program, a partnership that aims to develop a pipeline of teachers of color and improve teacher retention and academic achievement in low-income schools.
But for Barrera, the program has not just changed her career but helped her overcome her isolation.
“Being in the parent mentor program, it’s like a family,” says Barrera. “We were like fifteen parents and I had a great relationship with them. It’s unbelievable how my network grows not only with parents but teachers and administrators.”