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Principals Need to be 'On Board' for Parent Mentor Program

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Even the well-established, highly regarded Parent Mentor Program, founded by Chicago's Logan Square Neighborhood Association, needs a key component to make it successful: cooperative and willing principals in the schools where the program operates.

That was one of the takeaways from an Oct. 22 webinar by the Parent Engagement Institute at LSNA. The online session was held to introduce education and community organization leaders to this method of enlisting parent involvement, so it can be adapted in their school, district, or community.

Operating since 1995, the Parent Mentor Program has graduated more than 2,000 parents—many of them immigrants who learn how to help K-3 children master academic subjects like reading and math. In addition to helping the students achieve, the program is known for giving parents a voice as well.

The program has received national attention—from being featured on The Today Show last month as part of NBC's "Education Nation," to being featured in the book, "A Cord of Three Strands: A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools" and "A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform" http://matchondrygrass.org/the-book, which includes a chapter that covers the program.

Letica Barrera, an education organizer at LSNA, explained the nuts and bolts of the program. A Parent Mentor Coordinator invites other parents to become parent mentors, by greeting them the first day of school and inviting them to information sessions. Parents apply to the program, and are interviewed by the school principal and parent mentor coordinator. They agree to a background check and to take a tuberculosis test.

Once accepted, parent mentors take 15 hours of training, which is divided into three parts. The first focus is on their personal skills. In this component, they discover the skills they already possess that will be helpful in schools. In the second part, they identify their personal goals—how they want to grow themselves, and grow with their families. The last segment involves showing the parent the potential they possess as leaders.

In the Q-and-A session, one participant wanted to know about getting a school administration's buy-in for such a program. "It really depends on the principal. Every time we get a new principal, we have to work with them for a while. What we're doing is very different from what they expect or are used to," responded Joanna Brown, LSNA's lead education organizer.

It was a principal who came up with the initial idea to invite the mothers who dropped off their children to stay at a local elementary school.

"We now have books and articles that help convince new principals that this is valuable. It's better to start with a principal who at least verbally wants community involvement and understands it's a good for the kids," said Brown.

Teachers and administrators need to be reminded that parent mentors are not there to grade papers, copy handouts, or do other work that is not related to hands-on involvement with students. "The role of the parent mentor is to be supporting academically and socially and emotionally," said Bridget Murphy, LSNA education organizer. "A lot of principals would like parent mentors to be recess monitors. We do have to continually re-educate and reinforce the idea that parent mentors are in the classroom to be working one-on-one and in small groups with students. It's a year-long training program for parents, not a job."

Some resistance to having parent mentors work with children is inherent in how schools are set up. "Schools are run by professionals who don't want people looking over their shoulders...when schools say 'parent involvement,' they want them doing safe and predictable things. They don't want them [parents] too close to the core enterprise," explained Charles Payne, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, in a video aired during the webinar. "What this [the program] does is make a school a different kind of place."

Brown explained that LNSA has had a "big picture impact on schools and communities." When it launched 17 years ago, "our schools were ... isolated urban schools in a low-income neighborhood. They were viewed by many as fortresses." For parents who braved going into the front door, many were treated rudely, she said.

Teachers were cautious at first, Brown said. It was a voluntary program, and only five or six who were bilingual signed up for it in this neighborhood with predominantly Spanish-speaking families. The next year, teachers saw that they could get valuable assistance with students in their classrooms, and they all signed up.

As the program began to transform seven schools, it also created community. "It's been part of our vision of re-creating urban schools ... as centers of community; we're not working with the tide, but in a lot of ways against it. Year by year, new parents come forward, enter the program and really become very engaged in school, and as activists in community working on other issues like low-income housing, access to healthcare and immigration issues."

For more information, visit LSNA.

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