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Kennett schools' program assists and empowers Hispanic parents

07/03/2017 11:29AM ● Published by Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

As the June 22 APEX Program planning meeting at the Mary D. Lang Kindergarten Center got underway, the most important people associated with the program's mission were not seated at the conference table.
As Kennett Consolidated School District Superintendent Barry Tomasetti, Assistant Superintendent Mike Barber and several volunteers hammered out next year's agenda – one intended to introduce the parents of Hispanic students in Kennett schools to how they can serve as guideposts for their children's education – the future beneficiaries of the program have largely served as outliers in an academic mission to provide the best opportunities for their children's success.
All through the district's community – from the kindergarten center to its three elementary schools, middle school and high school –  the scenario is the same. While first-generation students of Hispanic heritage immerse themselves into an English-speaking environment of learning, their parents are left to navigate through a system they know little about.  
In an answer to these needs, the district began Kennett Cafe en Familia, a 45-minute informal gathering spot for parents that meets every second Thursday of the month from September to May, at the Kennett Middle School in Landenberg. Talking points at the meetings have included issues of concern for Hispanic parents throughout the school district: How the Kennett schools addresses mental health; drug and alcohol abuse; as well as gives primers on who does what in the district, through question-and-answer sessions with school administrators. In addition, the Cafe invites parents and their families to an annual holiday fiesta and a family game night in the spring.
The Cafe draws its blueprint from the district's Parent Engagement Task Force, its Head Start Program, and the work being done at ASPIRA of Delaware, Inc., a nonprofit organization devoted solely to the education and leadership development of Latino youth and their parents. The monthly meetings have also invited representatives from area church groups, the Boy Scouts, the Kennett Library and the Kennett Square Garage Community and Youth Center who conduct seminars and activities directed toward the children.
“When I was first hired by the district 11 years ago, I saw that there was a need for a forum like this," said Maribel Gonzalez, a school social worker in the district and an APEX advisor. "A lot of people had similar questions about accessing school and community resources, and I found myself giving the same conversation to parent after parent, and family after family. I thought wouldn't it be great to share this information, to enable this information to be shared further in the community.
"We introduce these parents to the chain of command. We talk about the system, because it is a very different educational system for many who new to the country."
During a two-week trip to Mexico to study its school system, Gonzalez said that while she saw parent involvement in schools, it was mostly confined to non-academic volunteering, like helping to paint schools and providing food at student events. 
"There was parent involvement, but not as we see parent involvement," she said. "The educational component was left to the teachers, because the teachers are the professionals.  We are trying to change that mindset -- to create this system as a bridge in order to say to them, 'There is a place for you here.'"
The Cafe has grown in popularity from its first meeting -- which drew five sets of parents -- to its most recent in April -- which drew 70 sets of parents, as well as several students. As news of the Cafe began to circulate among the Hispanic population, so too did the need to further spread the good word. The APEX Program was launched this past spring to enlist 12 parents to serve as volunteer messengers, organizers and recruiters.
The message of the APEX volunteers reached an early highwater mark at the Cafe's April 20 meeting, when several members spoke to nearly parents and several of the school district's administrators and principals.
“The parents at that meeting were so engaged in listening to the APEX members speak, that you could hear a pin drop,” Tomasetti said. “The message of empowerment means so much more when parents speak directly to parents. One volunteer  said to the parents, 'You can talk to the school administration. We talk to the administration all the time, and they are open to meeting with everyone.' I thought that was a profound message, saying that we are available and are meeting and are talking to explore ways of helping people.”
APEX Program member Maria Aja, who has a daughter in the school district and a son who attended Kennett schools and recently graduated from college, calls her involvement "a rewarding experience."
"You can see the difference in how the parents grow," said Aja, who served as an interpreter during the planning meeting. "The success is seeing the involvement of the parents in the community and their inclusion in their kids education, in order to make them successful. In the Hispanic culture, [a parent] is not a part of the school, while here, you are a part of the school. You are part of your student's education."
Maribel Garcia, a single mother of our children who attend Kennett schools, became an APEX volunteer after attending several Cafe meetings, which she said helped boost her confidence in being able to speak with her children's teachers -- as well as her children.     
"I learned how to talk to my kids," she said. "I can now teach them that school is an important aspect of life. I have taught them not to be shy. [Through my involvement as an APEX volunteer], I can now tell parents if their child wants to go to college, that they should ask for help and find out who to speak with."
During the APEX planning meeting, volunteers, Tomasetti and Barber drafted out a calendar of talking points for the Cafe's 2017-18 agenda that will attempt to support the year's main theme, 'Why is school important?'
The range of planned Cafe lessons and seminars include:

*    Teach parents how to understand how the school district's grading system works
*    Provide parents with up-to-date access to district policies, agendas, resources, directories and contacts
*    Invite parents to participate in Back-to-School Night and open house activities, that will     enlist APEX members as Spanish-English interpreters
*    Schedule seminars that address cybersafety, drug-and-alcohol abuse and school bullying,     developed with the Kennett Square Police Department
*    Invite guest speakers, Kennett High School student leaders, and recent college graduates who attended Kennett schools to address the importance of parental influence on education
*    Occasionally hold the Cafe at local colleges and technical schools, such as West     Chester University and Technical College High School, each of whom have offered to host the Cafe and provide tours

A running theme throughout the planning meeting was that the sooner the importance of education reaches the student, the better.
"One of the key messages we want to get across to parents is, 'It's important to get to your children when they are young,'" Tomasetti said. "If you get control and emphasize the importance of education when they are young, they will be successful, and when they realize that success early, it's easier to continue that success. If they experience failure, they get disengaged very quickly."
Tomasetti said that the APEX Program's mission is to not only empower parents to become more engaged in their children's education, but to train the next cycle of members, as part of a continuous feeder program of volunteerism and information.
“When we started this group, these volunteers understood that they would need to put in a lot of  hours, because they believe in the message and are very service-oriented,” he said. “The message is that not only have these volunteers been trained, but they are trainers for trainers.  Just from that first session, four people approached us with the idea to become a part of the APEX Program.
“My dad used to say, 'Talk is cheap. It's the actions that mean something.' Anybody can send out a message. We do that all of the time to our parents. But not everyone is going to do what these parents are doing. We believe that the best way to get these kids into that middle class is through education. We're educators, and that's what we believe.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email rgaw@chestercounty.com .

 
Intentions for Success
The Kennett Cafe en Familia distributes refrigerator magnets to those parents who attend the Cafe, on which is listed the following goals:

1.    I made sure that my child has a time and quiet place to complete his/her homework.
2.    I read a book, magazine or newspaper while my child was doing his/her homework.
3.    I asked my child what he/she learned in mathematics, reading, social studies or science.
4.    I told my child how important it is to his or her future to do their very best in school.
5.    I spent time listening to my child read.



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