Getting a Step Ahead : Parents Return to Elementary School to Learn How to Be Working Partners in Their Children’s Learning Process

Times Staff Writer

Heidi Pacheco, 25, went to elementary school Thursday morning.

One of about 30 parents bent over construction paper and masking tape, she listened as leaders of Project Ahead explained that the cut-and-pasted cardboard organizers parents were making would help their children concentrate better on homework.

The larger goal of the monthly meeting at the 102nd Street Elementary School in Watts went beyond helping students multiply by fives or learn the 50 state capitals. These parents were going to school to become partners with teachers in their children’s learning process.

Reaching Parents


Principal Melba Coleman said Project Ahead, funded since 1979 by the Los Angeles Unified School District, aims to reach parents who do not think they have anything to contribute to their children’s education, parents who do not come to school until there is a problem.

“Many parents feel inadequate,” Coleman said. “They think, ‘I didn’t finish school so I can’t help my child get an education.’ ”

In fact, said Mary Jones, Project Ahead coordinator, “we (educators) can’t do it without them.”

To get this message across, Project Ahead--a nationally recognized program that has survived despite stiff budget cuts--employs 10 family educators, several of them bilingual. In addition to arranging the monthly meetings and workshops, the educators visit participating families at their homes twice a month.


‘He Wanted to Help’

In one joint parent-child project, a father used Popsicle sticks, straws and aluminum cans to build, among other things, a windmill and a model hydroelectric dam. “He wanted to help his son understand about different forms of energy,” said Genethia Hayes, director of Project Ahead.

“We want to give the parents the skills they need to turn everyday experiences and activities into educational opportunities,” Hayes said, “so that home life mirrors and supports the skills children learn at school.”

Hayes said many parents of children who attend the 10 participating Project Ahead schools do not have an empty room to turn into a study. They cannot afford the latest home teaching tools. But Hayes said parents must realize that they can make the difference despite limited means. She said parents can help their children practice reading with cereal box labels or shopping lists.

Dr. Dorothy Rich of the Home and School Institute in Washington developed the blueprint for Project Ahead at the urging of Marnessba Tackett, former executive director of the Los Angeles area Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The conference administers the program.

A 1987 Harvard Graduate School of Education study concluded that Project Ahead showed “a rare spirit of creative experimentation.”

Hayes said the biggest challenge has been surviving last year’s funding cut of more than 20%, which led to the layoff of 10 family educators. She said the number of families Project Ahead can serve has dropped from 2,300 to 800.

In the school auditorium, Nancy Smith, 35, a part-time school bus driver, was attending her first Project Ahead get-together. “I need one more piece of tape,” Smith said to Pacheco, looking at the homework organizer she was making.


Just outside, teacher Carolyn Munhall was getting her first-graders organized into a neat line. And down the hall, Smith’s and Pacheco’s children were mastering the rigors of reading.

In the best spirit of Project Ahead, they were, at least for the moment, all involved in the educational process.