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Amherst schools seek to ease the way for immigrant families

  • Denisse Gonzalez , shown here with her sons Jeriel, 15, and Jeremy, 9, at their home in Hadley, has her younger son enrolled in Crocker Farm Elementary School under the school choice program. She says she finds Amherst school staff attentive and caring.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Denisse Gonzalez , shown here with her sons Jeriel, 15, and Jeremy, 9, at their home in Hadley, has her younger son enrolled in Crocker Farm Elementary School under the school choice program. She says she finds Amherst school staff attentive and caring.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Denisse Gonzalez, shown here home with her sons Jeriel, 15, and Jeremy, 9, said she was hesitant at first to attend the Family University program that seeks to enlighten parents about their children's schooling, but is enjoying it.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Denisse Gonzalez, shown here home with her sons Jeriel, 15, and Jeremy, 9, said she was hesitant at first to attend the Family University program that seeks to enlighten parents about their children's schooling, but is enjoying it.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Denisse Gonzalez , shown here with her sons Jeriel, 15, and Jeremy, 9, at their home in Hadley, has her younger son enrolled in Crocker Farm Elementary School under the school choice program. She says she finds Amherst school staff attentive and caring.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Denisse Gonzalez , shown here with her sons Jeriel, 15, and Jeremy, 9, at their home in Hadley, has her younger son enrolled in Crocker Farm Elementary School under the school choice program. She says she finds Amherst school staff attentive and caring.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Marta Guevera, director of student achievement and accountability in the Amherst schools, says the Family University program is part of an effort to boost achievement for low-income students.<br/>.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Marta Guevera, director of student achievement and accountability in the Amherst schools, says the Family University program is part of an effort to boost achievement for low-income students.
    .
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Denisse Gonzalez, shown at her Hadley home with her sons Jeremy, 9, and Jeriel, 15, said she was hesitant at first to attend the Family University program that seeks to enlighten parents about their children's schooling, but is enjoying it.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Denisse Gonzalez, shown at her Hadley home with her sons Jeremy, 9, and Jeriel, 15, said she was hesitant at first to attend the Family University program that seeks to enlighten parents about their children's schooling, but is enjoying it.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Denisse Gonzalez, shown at her Hadley home with her sons Jeremy, 9, and Jeriel, 15, said she was hesitant at first to attend the Family University program that seeks to enlighten parents about their children's schooling, but is enjoying it.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Denisse Gonzalez, shown at her Hadley home with her sons Jeremy, 9, and Jeriel, 15, said she was hesitant at first to attend the Family University program that seeks to enlighten parents about their children's schooling, but is enjoying it.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Denisse Gonzalez , shown here with her sons Jeriel, 15, and Jeremy, 9, at their home in Hadley, has her younger son enrolled in Crocker Farm Elementary School under the school choice program. She says she finds Amherst school staff attentive and caring.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Denisse Gonzalez, shown here home with her sons Jeriel, 15, and Jeremy, 9, said she was hesitant at first to attend the Family University program that seeks to enlighten parents about their children's schooling, but is enjoying it.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Denisse Gonzalez , shown here with her sons Jeriel, 15, and Jeremy, 9, at their home in Hadley, has her younger son enrolled in Crocker Farm Elementary School under the school choice program. She says she finds Amherst school staff attentive and caring.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Marta Guevera, director of student achievement and accountability in the Amherst schools, says the Family University program is part of an effort to boost achievement for low-income students.<br/>.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Denisse Gonzalez, shown at her Hadley home with her sons Jeremy, 9, and Jeriel, 15, said she was hesitant at first to attend the Family University program that seeks to enlighten parents about their children's schooling, but is enjoying it.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Denisse Gonzalez, shown at her Hadley home with her sons Jeremy, 9, and Jeriel, 15, said she was hesitant at first to attend the Family University program that seeks to enlighten parents about their children's schooling, but is enjoying it.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

AMHERST — One by one, children go to the front of the room to read their stories. They are from El Salvador, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, India, Senegal. Shyly, they show the crowd the pictures they have drawn and describe the memories they capture.

Some tell stories of their immigration, while others recount other childhood tales. The stories children tell run the gamut, but the one experiences all these children have in common is that they are new to Amherst.

It is a typical school exercise, but there’s a catch. The children are not the only students in this classroom. Instead, it is their parents who are here to learn.

The children and their parents are at Amherst Regional High School for Family University, a new program designed to increase parental engagement among low-income immigrant families.

“We would like families to really know what educational experience their children are having and can have,” said Marta Guevara, director of academic achievement and accountability, who is coordinating the program.

Family University is a series of meetings where parents and guardians learn about the schools and the family’s role in children’s education. The Amherst schools began the program in January.

Parents are invited to one meeting a month, and each meeting focuses on a different topic. The March meeting was canceled due to weather, so the next meeting, which is scheduled for April 11, will be the third.

Lessons, stories

At the February meeting, close to 50 people filled the room. Families sat around tables laughing and talking in a jumble of different languages as children wrote and drew stories. Some parents were reserved and quiet — apparently struggling with a language barrier — while others spoke with friends in English and Spanish.

Each Family University session begins with a meal, which is followed by a discussion and a time for activities — like the storytelling that capped off the February meeting. The discussions focus on topics ranging from student assessment to parental rights.

Literacy was the focus of the February meeting. After dinner, the families with older children broke off into another room to learn about the online software that parents can use to keep up on their children’s education.

Elementary school children and their families stayed in the cafeteria, where they did the writing and drawing exercise. Staff members spoke to parents about how they could use drawing as a tool to check in on their children and see if they were happy. If the youngsters only depict negative memories, they said, it is might be a sign something is wrong.

On this night, the younger children were asked to recall happy moments. Some drew pictures illustrating their arrival in Amherst. One girl spoke about what it was like to fly in an airplane for the first time. Another was so quiet that it was nearly impossible to hear her brief story about how she came to Amherst.

Elaine Caraballo’s daughter, Jaylidelh, 8, drew a picture and wrote a story about a family trip to an amusement park. Her son Jaden, 7, round faced and cheerful, also sat at the table drawing the family.

When the meeting wrapped up, staff handed out paper and pencils for families to take home, so that they could do some of the same activities they had done that night.

Guevara said that many recent immigrants are so grateful for the schooling their children are getting here that they are deferential to educators and don’t realize that they have a voice in the schools. As a result they are less likely to engage with teachers and administrators, and they often play a less active role in their children’s education, she said.

Steps to Success

Family University targets families who have been in Amherst less than three years, are first generation immigrants, English language learners, and low-income. Seventy families — 65 of whom are of Latino heritage — were invited to attend, Guevara said. In order to reach families that are not yet involved with the schools, staff made personal calls to invite parents and provided transportation for those who needed it. Guevara estimates that close to half of them came.

The district will receive assistance coordinating this program, and others that target Hispanic families, from a class at Amherst College called Spanish for Community Engagement. The class, which began working with the schools in February, made the calls to families for the March meeting.

The meal which begins each Family University meeting is prepared by the students in the 21st Century Skills after-school program which provides academic support and enrichment activities for Amherst Regional High School students. The 21st Century Skills program, which is grant funded, is part of the support system that the schools are offering for low-income students, Guevara said.

Family University is another piece of a larger plan for boosting achievement among Amherst’s neediest students called Steps to Success. The program, which is modeled on one that has been implemented in the Brookline schools for more than a decade, targets low-income students.

Families who are income-eligible for Steps to Success will go through a needs assessment at the start of the year. Students in the program receive special assistance from the schools, including after-school instruction and additional outreach to their families. Next year, the Amherst elementary schools and the Amherst regional schools will each hire a Steps to Success liaison to work directly with families.

The need to catch up

In the elementary schools, the immigrant and low-income students the program targets are consistently behind the state average for proficiency in mathematics and English, even when compared to other students statewide in the same subgroups. In the secondary schools, disadvantaged students perform much better, but those schools serve a slightly different population because they are regional and serve students in three additional towns.

In 2012, a mere 38 percent of low-income students in Amherst elementary schools scored proficient or above in English according to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. Scores were even lower for mathematics, where only 28 percent of low-income students were considered proficient or above. For the state as a whole, the percentage of low-income students who score proficient or above is approximately 10 percent higher in both categories.

For elementary students who are learning English, test scores are close to — although still slightly behind — the state average. Twenty percent of English language learners scored proficient and above in English, while only 16 percent met that target in math.

For Hispanic students in the elementary schools, both recent immigrants and those whose families have been in the United States for generations, scores are also similar to the state average — 41 percent are proficient in English and 33 percent are proficient in math. However, they have not been improving. Over the last five years, English proficiency has held steady among Hispanic students, while the share of students that are proficient in math has actually declined by more than 10 percent.

In the Amherst-Pelham regional middle and high schools — which draw students from Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury — low-income, minority, and immigrant students have higher levels of math and English proficiency than the state averages among the same groups. However, they still lag significantly behind other students in the school district.

The Hispanic and immigrant population in the Amherst schools has grown significantly over the last decade, Guevara said, but as a group, Hispanic students have not been seeing academic improvement.

“Academic achievement is the ultimate goal of this,” Guevara said. “We’re not serving them. We haven’t been really attentive. And we have many initiatives, yet we haven’t done anything systemic. This is our attempt to do a systemic change to really address the needs of these families.”

Addressing families

Research shows that family engagement has a clear impact on academic success.

William Jeynes, an education professor at California State University, did a meta-analysis of 51 studies that tracked the results of programs designed to increase family engagement. Many programs had a significant impact on student achievement, he found, and programs that focused on teacher-parent partnerships in education, were among the most successful.

While some parents devote many hours a week to volunteering for the schools, for parents who need to work multiple low- wage jobs, becoming involved in their child’s school can be far more difficult, Guevara said.

“We talk about differentiation in the classroom,” Guevara said. “Yet we don’t do that with families. We’ve been treating all families the same.”

Even among recent immigrants, Amherst parents are diverse. Some are professors or graduate students, while others are undocumented workers who may not have finished school, according to Guevara.

One of the focuses of Family University is helping parents understand that they can be involved in the schools, no matter what their background is, Guevara said. “You don’t need to speak English and read English to be able to be a part of your child’s education here.”

Denisse Gonzalez, who moved to Massachusetts from Puerto Rico two years ago so her mother could get medical treatment, said that she appreciates the program because it gives parents a chance to spend time with their children learning about what they are doing in school.

Gonzalez has two sons — Jeremy Torres, who is in fourth grade at Crocker Farm Elementary School and Jeriel Andújar, who went to middle school in Amherst and is in ninth grade at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton.

She recently moved to an apartment just across the town border in Hadley, but she decided to keep her son in Crocker Farm through school choice.

Gonzalez said she has found that Amherst schools staff really care about the students. “If they see my kid feel bad, or he’s mad or crying, or something like that, they call me,” she said.

Jeremy has taken advantage of a wide array of programs through the school, from playing basketball and violin to attending the after-school program. He has been in English Language Learner classes since the family moved to Amherst, and Gonzalez said that he has absorbed so much that he has become the teacher’s helper, working with other students who are new to the program.

Finding support

Gonzalez was hesitant to go to Family University at first, but after she heard good things from a friend who went to the first meeting, she decided to give it a try. She said that she and her son had a great time and would be going again. She was glad to hear the discussion about messages parents can draw from their children’s art work, a topic that was new to her.

When Gonzalez decided to go to Family University, she convinced her friend Elaine Caraballo, who has two children at Crocker Farm, to join her.

“I loved it,” Caraballo said. The most exciting part was seeing such a diverse group of families building community, she said, and she plans to attend the meetings regularly.

Caraballo, who grew up in Holyoke and lived in Florida for the past 12 years, moved to Amherst less than six months ago to be near her family. She, too, now lives in Hadley, but she has also kept her children at Crocker Farm as school choice students.

For Caraballo, the Amherst schools have been a haven. “When I walk into the school it’s like family,” she said, describing how welcoming the teachers and administrators have been.

Caraballo, whose parents are Puerto Rican immigrants, said her children benefit from the extra support Amherst offers.

When she moved to Amherst, she said that Jaylidelh, who is in second grade, was struggling with reading. At Crocker Farm School she received tutoring, and Caraballo said that within a few months her daughter became an avid reader.

At the end of the literacy focused Family University meeting in February, each family was given a book to take home and Jaylidelh eagerly picked out “Pig’s Don’t Fly,” a picture book about farm animals.

“Every day we have to go to Barnes and Noble or the library and take out books,” Caraballo said. “She reads all day.”

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