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Tellin' Stories, Finding Common Ground

By David Levine

For low-income parents and parents of color, a host of factors can make their children's school feel like an alien and intimidating place. Before Tellin' Stories began working at Bruce-Monroe, parent involvement was minimal. Past negative experiences with their own schooling, difficulties communicating with staff, and lack of confidence that they were qualified to be equal partners in the formal education of their children often kept parents from feeling comfortable within the school. Wanda Gaddis, an African American parent who emerged as an early leader, recalled being "terrified and anxious" when she brought her daughter to the school to participate in Head Start. Her feelings were colored by the negative experiences of her older sons in several DCPS schools and her own early departure from school after 8th grade.

For Latino immigrants, strong engagement within the school could at times clash with norms within their home country. According to Ramiro Acosta, a Bruce-Monroe pre-kindergarten teacher who served as the school's parent center coordinator from 1999 to 2003, Latino mothers who came to the school were timid about raising concerns. "They didn't have the language to demand. In Colombia [for example] the school culture that they were familiar with was that parents did not get involved in school matters. [They would think] 'Whatever the school policies are, I will follow. What do I know about education?'" This deferential stance was at times reinforced by difficulties interacting with school personnel. Only a few teachers and none of the front office personnel spoke Spanish. A Latino parent coming into the office would sometimes feel ignored. At the same time, office staff reported that they wished they knew Spanish and that they sometimes felt unconfident interacting with parents who understood little English.

Photo: Jill Weiler
Bruce-Monroe teacher Ramiro Acosta, right, works with parent and child.

With crucial guidance from the Tellin' Stories staff, the Parents and Friends of Bruce-Monroe initiated a rich array of activities designed to draw more parents into the school, build a greater sense of community, and ensure that parents would be considered respected contributors to the education of their own children. The group offered workshops to help parents understand the district's new learning standards and learn how to conduct effective parent-teacher conferences. They sponsored educational workshops led by the math and reading specialists in the building. To help teachers gain an appreciation for the diverse cultural resources of the neighborhood, parents conducted community walking tours?visiting a nearby black heritage bookstore, a health food store, Asian-owned corner grocery stores, and the local post office. These tours were the first time many teachers had walked around the neighborhood, and gave participating staff a chance to see parents take on a leadership role.

The core work of the parent group takes place during weekly meetings typically attended by 15 to 20 parents. These gatherings are co-facilitated in English and Spanish by Tellin' Stories organizer Jill Weiler, who has worked with the parent group since 1999, and Parent Coordinator Lillian Hernandez, whose administrative aide salary comes from the school's annual budget. As parents engage in planning and educational activities, they also come together in ways that provide them with an emotional home within the school. They express support for each other through baby showers and birthday celebrations, and even occasionally collect money when someone can't make a rent payment.

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