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AR: Language learning helps entire families

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

SPRINGDALE - A woman who could barely speak English a year ago stood before a room of peers Tuesday to share how the success of conquering a second language seeped into other areas of her life.

During school days, Raquel Perez, a permanent resident from Mexico, sat alongside her son Brian in his kindergarten classroom at Jones Elementary School. At night, she attended classes as part of the first year of the Springdale School District's Toyota Family Literacy program.

The work helped her learn the language, a necessity to obtain citizenship, and gave her skills to help her support her children's education, Perez told a group of 70 other participants and educators at a celebration of the program's first year, held at the Jones Center for Families.

"I have learned to help my children with their school work," she said. "I have a better understanding of what they are required to do at school."

Three elementary schools - Jones, Lee and Elmdale - joined the national program in the fall, and quickly set an example for other schools across the country.

Inspired by the success of parents like Perez, the district will seek funding and staff to add five elementary schools to the program next year.

The program, built on the idea that parents' literacy and involvement contribute to their children's success, targets Hispanic parents whose children aren't fully fluent in English. It's financed through a $600,000, three-year grant from the Toyota USA Foundation and in-kind and financial contributions from community organizations.

Springdale was one of five districts selected nationally from 191 proposals to share in $3 million from the foundation.

Through the program, parents take part in their children's lessons in the classroom, attend night English classes coordinated by Northwest Technical Institute and Ozark Literacy Council, and participate in meetings designed to address education and family concerns.

Successful parents and program administrators have been featured in Education Week and Parade, said Emily Kirkpatrick, vice president of the National Center for Family Literacy.

"You're setting the example for other districts and other families," she said.

A 2007 study by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation found that 82 percent of Arkansas' immigrant children from Mexico and Central America have at least one parent with limited English proficiency, and 58 percent have both parents with that designation. The study notes that a lack of conversational English skills limits a parent's ability to be involved in their child's education.

Mary Bridgforth, the district's coordinator for English as a Second Language programs, said children with participating parents had noticeable gains in classroom performance throughout the year.

She plans to study standardized test data of affected students to determine how much their parents' involvement influenced their achievement.

"We truly believe that it is making a huge difference," she said.

Participating schools have recruitment and retention plans to fill open spots for parents throughout the year, a task that has become easier as news of the program's success has spread.

At kindergarten registration this spring, mothers who participated in the program, once nervous to enter the school building, helped interpret for other parents and encouraged them to join.

"There are so many wins in this model," Superintendent Jim Rollins said. "There are so many people who benefit from it."

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