Bilingual Lessons

Montclair PTA learns 2 languages increase participation

GARLAND – When Francisca Briones’ son started kindergarten at Montclair Elementary, the Spanish-speaking mother seldom visited the school.

Mrs. Briones, a Mexican immigrant, didn’t speak enough English to find out the names of her son’s principal or teachers. The language barrier also discouraged her from attending PTA meetings, classroom parties and parent conferences, she said.

“I would say to myself, I don’t understand anything, so it’s better that I not go to the school,’ ” Mrs. Briones recalled.

That changed a few years ago when Principal Peggy Manning launched a campaign to get Hispanic parents involved at the campus in south Garland. The principal asked restaurant owner Lupita Torres to help solve the problem, and she helped organize a Spanish-language PTA committee to work side-by-side with the English-language PTA.

The group has had so much success that it was named Garland’s PTA of the Year last year. The number of volunteers at Montclair grew as more Hispanic parents
became involved, leaders said. About 31 percent of the school’s 600 students
are Hispanic. Their families come from Mexico, El Salvador, Peru, Honduras, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Chile and Colombia.

Mrs. Briones met with other mothers last week to plan holiday parties for her son’s fourth-grade class. On Sunday, she prepared chicken mole for a Hispanic-flavored Thanksgiving celebration at the school. About 400 people attended.

“For Hispanic parents, things have changed dramatically at this school,” Mrs. Briones said. “We have relationships and interact with the teachers.”

Mrs. Manning said some parents resisted the changes. Some English-speaking parents who thought bilingual education was not helpful in teaching English had to learn that the program helps children make a transition into an English-dominant education.

Spanish-speaking parents had to learn that they are responsible for reading to their children, overseeing homework and visiting the school, the principal said.

“When I first got here, we didn’t seem to be meeting the needs of the Hispanic parents,” Mrs. Manning said. “They weren’t comfortable coming into our building. No one spoke Spanish in the office. We leaned on our custodian to help us translate.”

The principal recruited Mrs. Torres to the school improvement committee, who recommended holding PTA meetings entirely in Spanish. Previously, the PTA used a translator during meetings, but few parents turned out to listen.

“It was noisy. It was embarrassing for some parents. It just didn’t work,” Ms. Manning said.

When the PTA agreed to hold simultaneous meetings – a Spanish session in the school library and an English-speaking gathering in the cafeteria – the rooms filled up. The same topics were discussed in both rooms.

“We started with nine parents attending three years ago,” Mrs. Torres said. “We are now averaging 55 parents at our meetings.

We’ve even managed to overcome Hispanic machismo. More than half of our parents are dads.”

Mrs. Torres said it works because Hispanic parents receive several fliers and phone calls in Spanish before each event. The PTA phone bank includes several bilingual members who pass on the information to Spanish-speaking mothers. A newsletter is also produced in Spanish.

PTA president Katrina Fox said Hispanic parents previously were left out.

“We used to not have room mothers in our bilingual classrooms,” Mrs. Fox said. “These are the mothers who organize the kids’ holiday parties and bake cupcakes. We knew that Hispanic moms wanted to be involved because they would show up on the day of the party with treats. But we didn’t know how to communicate with them.”

Now, the Spanish- and English-speaking mothers work on projects jointly, Mrs. Fox said. Once a month, they meet at school to decorate hallways and share a potluck lunch.

“We seem to have broken down a lot of the barriers,” Mrs. Fox said. “Our kids were already mingling but the parents were not.

We’ve made the Hispanic family feel comfortable coming to the school.”

Beverly Guerian, the PTA’s volunteer coordinator, said parents have logged 1,200 volunteer hours this year.

“The parents help make copies, read and listen in class, take temperatures in the clinic, address envelopes in the office, hang curtains or shelve books in the library,” Mrs. Guerian said. “I’m so glad to see these parents here. If our kids see that school’s important to us, it will be important to them.”

Demetrio Mangas, the father of a kindergarten girl, said the PTA helps him learn about the American way of life. He enjoyed lectures at a recent PTA meeting on reading and school safety. On Sunday, he enjoyed his first Thanksgiving meal.

“This is one way of integrating ourselves into life in the United States,” Mr. Mangas said. “We must observe and respect the traditions of this country.”

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