CHAPEL HILL — Montserrat Cano Mejia has three kids in elementary school, she told a room full of Orange and Chatham county teachers.
She doesn’t always go to her children’s school meetings though, because she doesn’t understand English.
“It would be wonderful to have more bilingual classes,” Cano Mejia said in Spanish. “Or teachers’ assistants who speak Spanish. That would be great motivation for us to get involved.”
Four Latino mothers in the Orange County Schools district spoke candidly to educators, sharing their hopes and dreams for their children through an interpreter during a panel discussion Wednesday.
Maria del Carmen has two elementary-age children and one entering middle school and has been in the United States for nine years. She teared up as she spoke.
“I’m very interested in helping my kids,” she said. “Their education is why I came here. I want to be a lot more involved, to reach out and help my kids do better in school.”
The panel discussion was part of a week-long training workshop coordinated by Leslie Babinski, a research scientist with Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy.
Babinski and her colleagues are developing a new model for ESL (English as a Second Language) and classroom teachers to collaborate in order to “embed language and literacy instruction into the regular classroom.”
“We knew we wanted to get the voices of the parents into the conversation,” Babinski said. “We’ve done focus groups with parents so we’ve had lots of these conversations with them about their hopes for their children, what they want from their education, how they’d like to communicate with their teachers.”
“That was good for us,” Babinski continued. “But we felt like teachers needed access to that as well, and we’re going to start incorporating that into our thinking.”
In the Orange County Schools district, 1,026 of the 7,401 students enrolled in 2012-13 were Hispanic students, about 14 percent of the overall student population.
According to the district website, 457 students took ESL classes last school year.
The mothers agreed their biggest challenge is the language barrier which, as non-English speakers themselves, limits their involvement with their children’s educations. They understand little at open house meetings and parent-teacher conferences. School materials are sent home in English only.
As well as having bilingual classes and teachers’ assistants, the mothers suggested bringing interpreters into school meetings and asked that their children come home with materials in Spanish.
But public schools are strapped for resources.
Rosemary Deane is an ESL teacher at New Hope Elementary School, where 24 percent of students take ESL.
Deane spends half of her work days teaching and the other half doing parent support and outreach – “translating, interpreting, setting up meetings, having literacy nights.”
Deane is the only person working in that capacity in Orange County Schools.
“There is a lot of need,” she said. “In New Hope especially, a lot of families live in poverty, so it’s not just things related to school, but things that are happening at home and in the community, things related to immigration status, related to living in poverty.”
“It’s hard because parents will come in, being under the threat of eviction, or not having enough food,” she continued. “I try to support them and find resources in the community and then also, focus on academics and their children’s needs and connecting home and school.”
Marta Sánchez, also a research scientist at Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy and a member of the North Carolina-based Latino Child and Family Research Group, said schools, communities and Congress could be doing more to help children of immigrants.
“We’re seeing ‘dreamers’ aging out and it’s disturbing,” Sánchez said in a phone interview. “Entire generations of young people who wanted to go to college and work, we see those dreams quickly eroding because families are already in poverty and have vulnerable immigration status. And we let them fall away, because we haven’t found the public will, or a way to talk to our representatives, that this matters to all communities.”
The graduation rate for Hispanic students in Orange County Schools district is 79.7 percent, compared with 85.4 percent of students overall.
“These families are so committed to creating a better life for their kids and building a stronger country here,” Sánchez continued. “They want to be here and do something in their lives and in their children’s lives. We want these families to be our neighbors, their kids friends of our kids, to teach them and to learn from them and live with them.”
Cano Mejia echoed this notion.
“They’re your kids too,” she told the teachers. “For eight hours a day, they’re your kids too. We want you to help them and support them.”