Learn About: Evaluating Performance | Common Core
Home > Success stories > Urban success stories > UT: Parents and students learning together
| print Print


UT: Parents and students learning together

 

A mother and son learn together.

Summary: With funding from an outside source, this district not only developed a comprehensive program to improve the literacy skills of it's English language learners by helping to improve their parent's literacy skills, but learned how to sustain the funding as well. 

 


As the number of children who use cell phones continues to grow, so do concerns about the long-term effects on children’s health. In the Granite (Salt Lake City) School District, a select group of parents learned first-hand how to protect their children from the electromagnetic fields that cell phones—and other household appliances—emit. Those same parents will be invited to several other seminars during the school year, where they’ll delve into topics ranging from child abuse to breast cancer awareness to understanding mental illnesses.

These timely classes are just one aspect of the district’s comprehensive literacy improvement plan, which received financial support from Toyota. Called the Toyota Family Literacy Program (TFLP), the plan is designed to help Hispanic parents improve their English and literacy skills while strengthening their ability to help their children, in grades K–3, succeed in school. Three elementary schools in the district—Woodrow Wilson, James E. Moss, and Monroe—share the funds from the three-year grant.

The need for such a program can be seen in the numbers. In the last 10 years, the English as a Second Language (ESL) population has grown by 200 percent in the district, observes Charlene Lui, Granite’s director of Educational Equity. In some schools, like Monroe, ESL students now make up more than half of the student body.

Learning about school

While the seminars help inform parents about current issues that could affect their children, TFLP also seeks to introduce the families to the ins-and-

District characteristics
Name: Granite SD
State: UT
Type: Urban
Grades: Pre-k–12
Enrollment: 67,502
Students per teacher: 21

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 29.8%
English language learners: 22.4%
Students with disabilities: 11.6%
White: 64.6%
Black: 2.1%
Hispanic: 25.1%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 6.9%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 1.6%
Other: n.a.
Source: SchoolDataDirect
outs of a typical U.S. school system. Parents, as a result, meet with teachers and administrators, and with the specialists that the public schools often provide, such as counselors, nurses, social workers, and reading specialists. “This year, we took parents to the school library and registered them,” says Laura Olsen, TFLP parent-teacher liaison at James Moss Elementary. Most parents are surprised to learn that they can actually check out books, she notes. TFLP parents at Moss also have access to the computer lab and are provided daycare when they attend classes or visit their children’s classrooms.

“It’s important to find ways to engage parents,” says Lui, who adds that that can be a challenge if parents don’t initially feel comfortable in a school setting—a disposition shared by many parents with limited English or literacy skills. Building a sense of community can go a long way toward easing their qualms, however. TFLP gives parents with similar experiences and concerns a chance to learn from—and support—one another. “One of the greatest rewards is to see mothers coming [to school] and wanting to stay,” observes Lui. “We have parents on campus all the time, which leads to a more welcoming, safer climate, for all students,” she states.

Learning about curriculum and instruction

Getting parents into classrooms is also a key part of TFLP. During Parent and Child (PACT) activities, teachers model student-directed instructional strategies. Parents can then “take these approaches home and use with their children,” says Lui.

“We encourage parents to sit with their child and do the same activities together,” says Janice Harmon, lead ESL teacher at Monroe Elementary. After the class ends, parents “write in their journals about what happened during PACT time, what they observed and think about [the activity].” During this debriefing, Harmon clarifies any misconceptions parents have.

PACT time gives teachers an opportunity to provide simultaneous English language learning for students and parents. Every Monday at Monroe, regular classroom teachers provide a list of spelling words along with the story for the week to TFLP families, explains Harmon. “Teachers write the words on the board, parents and their children practice spelling them out. They can then practice reading and writing those words at home.” When parents and children read the story of the week together, they are encouraged to use the dictionary to find definitions for the words they don’t know. “We then ask parents to use those words in sentence,” a teaching strategy they can then use with their children, says Harmon.

Most of the teachers at Monroe are ESL-endorsed, so an added benefit of TFLP has been giving these teachers a chance to increase their expertise in working with ESL students, Harmon observes. “The regular classroom teachers have also been receptive to parental involvement, and that’s been very helpful,” she states.

Educators in the Granite School District must also recognize that differentiating instruction applies as much to the adults in TFLP as it does to students in the classroom. In each of the three schools, the parents’ abilities can range from having minimal English speaking skills to those who are quite fluent. Several mothers in Monroe’s program, for example, are “pretty good at understanding spoken English, but can’t reply in the language,” says Harmon. She will sometimes let these parents respond to her questions in Spanish, but then repeats what they said back to them in English and asks them to repeat the words after her. More advanced students, on the other hand, are asked to write a paragraph, in English, about what they had learned while in the seminar or PACT.

Lessons learned
  • If at first you don’t succeed, try again. This adage is one that should guide every school and district in search of grant money to fund special programs. The Granite School District was not awarded money for its literacy improvement plan the first time it applied for a Toyota grant. So, district administrators worked with Toyota—and the National Center for Family Literacy (www.famlit.org) to hone their program and their grant application. “Persistence pays,” says Charlene Lui, director of Educational Equity for the Granite School District. “It’s important to build trust with the granting agency and keep trying—especially if you believe in the program.”
  • Be creative when looking for funds to sustain the program. Toyota’s grant has a three-year time-period. To receive the grant money, as a result, the Granite School District had to show how it would collaborate with local organizations for monetary support once the grant expired. The district has obtained legislative funding for its program, and community groups have indicated they want to help. The United Way, for example, “wants to see the program continue,” says Lui, who adds that the Mexican Consulate is also working with the district to create ESL learning centers.
  • Seek support from all stakeholders. Educators like Janice Harmon, lead ESL teacher at Monroe Elementary, must work closely with classroom teachers to ensure that they understand the program and its goals. Harmon says she assists teachers by serving as the school’s ambassador and keeping TFPL families informed about school and classroom activities. “I do a lot of phone calling,” she says. “I act as an interpreter, translating notes that come in and back with students.” In fact, Harmon maintains she will do whatever is necessary to ensure students’ academic achievement. Sometimes she must assist teachers in their classrooms (“One teacher had four TFLP families in her class—it was a bit overwhelming,” Harmon says.); other times, she has to help parents determine how to help their children with their homework without actually doing the homework. “It’s a give-and-take,” she observes.
  • Have patience. Once you have buy-in, from teachers to superintendent, from support people to administrators, you have to describe what to expect in the initial phases of the grant implementation and what is expected as the program enters years two and three. “You have to have patience to go through the ‘storming and forming’ process,” states Lui. Once people see the effort and the benefits, however, the challenges don’t seem so insurmountable, she asserts.
  • Have parents set goals. TFLP families should have learning objectives, just as students do. At James Moss Elementary, one goal is for parents to keep a weekly diary. The monthly seminars provide a lot of information, observes Laura Olsen, parent-teacher liaison at Moss. By asking parents to keep a diary, they must process the information and translate it into something they understand. “If we talk about nutrition and the food pyramid, we’re giving the basics about healthy eating,” Olsen says. If parents then write about healthy eating habits, they may be more inclined to practice healthy eating habits at home.Have parents set goals. TFLP families should have learning objectives, just as students do. At James Moss Elementary, one goal is for parents to keep a weekly diary. The monthly seminars provide a lot of information, observes Laura Olsen, parent-teacher liaison at Moss. By asking parents to keep a diary, they must process the information and translate it into something they understand. “If we talk about nutrition and the food pyramid, we’re giving the basics about healthy eating,” Olsen says. If parents then write about healthy eating habits, they may be more inclined to practice healthy eating habits at home.
  • Tap into the expertise of immigrant family members. Many of the parents who participate in TFLP come to the United States with experience that would serve schools well. Some of the paraprofessionals that work in the Granite School District have multiple degrees, Lui notes. “We’re growing our own pool of ethnic-minority teachers,” she says.

Learning from the program

The Granite School District is one of several across the United States to be supported by Toyota in its literacy improvement efforts. Successful implementation of TFLP in Granite’s and other schools can be attributed to its comprehensive approach (see box) and the enthusiasm both educators and parents bring to the program. Indeed, TFLP is especially empowering “for those parents who once were marginalized,” says Lui.

And, while evidence of improved student achievement is difficult to find this early in the program’s implementation, teachers have collected initial data that indicates that TFLP’s approach is working. “We are required to conduct pre-, mid-, and post-year tests at Monroe,” says Harmon. Then, Harmon matches a child whose parent is enrolled in the program with another student whose parent is not in the program. (The matched students have similar grade point averages and test scores.) When comparing the two students’ progress at the end of the year, says Harmon, students whose parents had been in TFLP made progress “over and above” the match student.

It’s the anecdotal affirmation that can be most telling, however. “I think it’s just a wonderful program,” says Harmon. “I see success and those involved are immediately rewarded.”

Olsen agrees. “Parents take the goals of the program to heart,” she says. “They try to support each other—it’s very nice.”

Having such a support group in her life has made the transition to the United States much easier for Rosa Almaraz Valdivia and her family. She has sons in the fourth and fifth grades at Monroe. “The program helps me help my children in the school,” she states. She especially appreciates learning more about the curriculum and instruction. Before TFLP, she says, Valdivia found the homework too difficult to comprehend, so helping her children was impossible. Now, she says, “I learn what to do with the child at home, and if I have questions, I have people I can turn to.”

Four components the Toyota Family Literacy Program
  • Childhood Education—This helps parents understand what happens during the children’s regular classroom hours.
  • Adult Education—Parents learn what they would need to know if they wanted to take—and pass—the General Educational Development [GED] test. Parents also take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.
  • Parenting Education—This includes learning about child development issues and the various concerns parents typically have.
  • Parent and Child Together (PACT) Time—Parents join their children in the classroom and learn how to do child-directed learning activities.

 


This story was written by by Kathy Checkley, a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. Kathy has more than 13 years of experience writing about education issues.

Posted: March 11, 2009

©2009 Center for Public Education

Add Your Comments





Display name as (required):  

Comments (max 2000 characters):




Comments:



Home > Success stories > Urban success stories > UT: Parents and students learning together