The notes home to Maria and Lazaro Ortiz from Lennox schoolteachers were frequent: Their son, Cesar, had been misbehaving. They were not surprised that their high-spirited and willful 6-year-old was having trouble at school, but they wondered why their home disciplining was not helping.
The answer to their question, the Ortizes and Lennox educators now agree, plays a part in the educational future of dozens of so-called at-risk students like Cesar. And it reaches to the core of cultural, educational and parental value systems that rub against each other for the first time in such immigrant communities as Lennox.
Through their participation in weekly parenting classes aimed at the area's Latino population, the Ortizes are working on talking with their child more and yelling at him less. The five-week-long classes, which began last month, are co-sponsored by the Lennox School District and Hawthorne's Richstone Family Center, a nonprofit child-abuse treatment center.
The classes target parents of at-risk kindergarteners through third-graders. Lennox educators say that early intervention in behavioral problems can prevent further conflicts and help the children succeed academically.
The classes are an example of the enlarged role the Lennox school district is playing in the lives of immigrant families. Residents see the district, designated as one of eight "port-of-entry" immigrant districts in the state, as the area's most visible American institution.
The parenting classes explore alternatives to traditional ways of disciplining a child, such as spanking. Many parenting experts frown on spanking because they say it relies on using fear to regulate behavior. Instead, the classes suggest such methods as curbing after-school privileges when disciplining a child. Discussions also look at building effective communication bridges between parents and children and methods of boosting a child's self-esteem.
The Ortizes, whose son is a first-grader at Felton Elementary School, gather with about five other parents in Felton school's library for two hours of instruction on Thursday evenings. The classes are run by Lennox teachers who are trained by Richstone staff members. The program is also offered at the district's four other elementary schools, and about 45 parents have been taking the classes.
"We can give (children) all of this information, how to say no to peer pressure, how to say no to the drugs, the gangs. . . . But the parents also need to work with us, and we are providing them those skills through this program," said Martha Padilla-Pardo, who oversees the parenting classes as Lennox's coordinator of special programs.
Such parenting classes are becoming more common in areas with large concentrations of immigrants, although no district in the South Bay appears to have as progressive a parenting component as Lennox, say education and parenting experts. The Lennox schools also offer a program, Los Ninos Bien Educados, that teaches parents how an American educational system operates and what their role is in their child's education. Next fall, the district plans to start support groups for parents.
In Lennox, a working-class community mostly made up of recent Mexican and Central American immigrants, language is a comparatively easy barrier to hurdle. The district is staffed predominantly with bilingual personnel, said Marlene Wilson, coordinator of instruction. More pressing are the unincorporated area's numerous gang and drug problems.
Marilyn Arias, one of the Ortizes' parenting instructors, said a number of her younger students reared in war-ravaged countries have been more affected by the harsh realities of American urban life than by the violence they have seen in their native lands.
"It really is sad," said Arias, a Lennox Middle School teacher who was born in El Salvador.
Given the adversity that students face daily, efforts such as the pilot program and Los Ninos Bien Educados have helped the district form a crucial link with parents, administrators said. Its success is evident in 90% to 100% attendance at parent conferences, back-to-school nights and other school functions.
"School is the safe ground here," Wilson said. "There is no other government institution here. Parents know they can always come to the school and feel welcome."
Wilson said the district's bilingual staffing enables parents to go to the schools for assistance in filling out paperwork and, in some cases, help in getting their children immunized.
Lazaro Ortiz, a construction worker, said the parenting classes have brought him closer to his son.
"We'll sit down together and read the class materials together," Ortiz said in Spanish. "Then we discuss them. He understands, not everything, of course, but he listens more."
Armed with new parenting techniques, the Ortizes said they have been able to discipline their son without having to raise their voices as often as they had before the class.
Maria Ortiz said her son's teacher has noticed a difference.
"She told me something has happened to him; he's much more well-behaved," she said.
Claude Goldenberg, a research psychologist at UCLA who has conducted studies in the district since 1983, said Lennox's outreach has succeeded "to a large extent."
"One thing that I found was that (Lennox) parents are a good deal more interested in their childrens' education than most people think," said Goldenberg, who once taught in Lennox. "They see education as a ticket out. . . . They see their own economic condition as a result of their failure to study. Even though, on average, they have had only six years of formal education themselves, they are more capable of helping their children than most people tend to assume."
Cheryl Gourgouris, a community consultant with Richstone, said the center chose to collaborate with Lennox on the program because of the district's reputation of parental involvement. "We've been very impressed by the quality of the commitment to do what's right for the families," Gourgouris said. "They really follow through. Sometimes school districts do that on paper so it looks good. But this is not on paper. This is, 'We're going to do whatever it takes to make the program work.' "
To that end, the district provides child care for the parents and pays the extra wages of teachers who participate in the program. A $20,000 United Way grant helps fund the program, along with about $14,000 in district contributions.
Padilla-Pardo, head of the Lennox program, said the classes cross rough cultural terrain, particularly when it comes to disciplining children.
"We're also informing (the parents) that the way it was done back home may not be something you can legally do to your child here and you need to be aware that that is not appropriate," she said.
Among the most debated topics--though one not restricted to Latinos--is spanking.
"A lot of times, in parent education sessions, you'll hear them saying 'They won't listen otherwise and that's how my father got me to behave. My father would take the belt and literally give me a couple swats with the belt. What's wrong with that?' " Padilla-Pardo said. "Well, you need to know that if your child comes to school and there are (physical) marks on your child . . . legally we're bound to report that."
However, some critics caution against programs that place value judgments on how parents, particularly immigrants, raise their children.
Although not personally familiar with the Lennox program, Guadalupe Mendoza, a parent specialist for migrant education in the County Office of Education, said that "it is important that we, in American education, be very careful in not imposing our ideas of how a child must be disciplined or raised."
However, Mendoza praised efforts to reach out to parents.
"The schools must take the lead in showing them how to empower themselves," Mendoza said.
Lazaro Ortiz said he has already assumed a more active role in his son's education. He plans to attend the parent support group meetings the district will offer this fall. And, he said, his son has appreciated his parents' efforts on his behalf.
"We have one child, but sometimes it seems like there are 10," Ortiz said. "When he sees that we're coming here, doing something for him, he understands more. It makes him feel better."