EAGLE COUNTY — As school budgets were slashed in Eagle County and across Colorado in the wake of the Great Recession, parent volunteerism in public schools transitioned from the right thing to do to an absolute necessity for financially strapped teachers and administrators.
In Eagle County, a resort area dependent both on international tourism and an immigrant labor force, parent volunteerism comes with its own set of multi-cultural, multi-lingual challenges. In Mexico, parent volunteerism in public schools is neither required nor desired, so it can be tough to educate Mexican immigrants living and working in the United States on its importance, experts say.
Enter YouthPower365’s Parent Mentor program, which launched for the 2014-15 school year in Eagle County and is now in its third school year of identifying, training, coaching and coordinating a small group of parent mentors who are primarily Spanish-speaking women.
“We are leaders in our homes with our families, and now we are leaders in the schools as parent mentors, and we are growing as well as leaders in our community,” said Gladys Garcia, who’s in her second year as a coordinator for the program and has a child at Gypsum Elementary School and one at Gypsum Creek Middle School.
The initial goals for the local parent mentor program — modeled after a successful program created by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago — were to increase the number of minority volunteers in the school system, improve the classroom experience for students and teachers, build a better understanding of how the school system works and better support their own children’s education.
And with parent mentor volunteers and coordinators working two hours in the classroom four days a week in eight different local schools throughout Eagle County in 2015-16, those initial modest goals were quickly met.
“I know more now about community resources and about the school system and how it works,” said Mayra Orona, who joined the program last year when she saw how her daughter was struggling at Gypsum Elementary School and stayed on when she moved to middle school. “But I can still help her, and I’m continuing in the program, helping with kindergarten even though my daughter has gone on to middle school. I like helping.”
Another parent mentor told how a student whose first language is Spanish struggled with fear and anxiety in the classroom setting, crying during the English-instruction day in a dual-language program until she calmed him, provided a familiar face and language and got him back on track learning English.
“The teachers feel less tension when the parent mentors are around, and they are very happy that we’re coming into the classroom,” Garcia said. “Most of the kids are totally different when they see a parent mentor there to assist them, because they are learning English, and so whenever I encounter parents at the grocery store or outside of school, they are very grateful.”
Schools in Eagle County have student populations that are up to 92 percent minority, with 80 percent qualifying for free and reduced lunch. According to the nonprofit Colorado Children’s Campaign Kids Count database, more than one in five Colorado children (268,000) lived in immigrant families in 2014, and 88 percent of them were citizens.