'Parental Involvement' a New Concept to Many Latinos

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Adan Lara's parents never visited his teachers to ask about Lara's progress. Nor did they volunteer in his classroom or even ask Lara how his school day went.

His parents and most others in Colima--a city in western Mexico where Lara grew up--expected the schools to take care of school matters, and the term "parent involvement" never came up, Lara said.

Yet in raising his three children, the 20-year Ojai resident, a machinist in Oxnard, said he learned that parents here are expected to take an active part in their children's education. A lack of involvement could be interpreted as indifference, he said.

But Lara went far beyond the usual routine of parent-teacher conferences and PTA bake sales: He created an organization dedicated to helping other Latino parents get more involved in their children's education.

He started a nonprofit group last year called LUPE--for Latinos Unidos Por Educacion--to inform Latino parents in Ojai about school issues and to encourage them to participate at the campuses. More recently, he began the "Amigos" program to get children to read in Spanish and English at their local library.

"He's doing a wonderful job," said Lisa Meeker, who heads an after-school library program in Ojai and helped Lara develop the Amigos program. "I look at communities that do well and it's when you have people like Adan that are taking a leadership role."

It's true that schools and libraries often see a parent's noninvolvement as a lack of interest, Meeker said.

"If your kids need extra attention and you don't seem to care, why should the teachers or administrators put out a lot of extra time?" she said.

"The people at the library say, 'What's the point of buying a large Spanish book collection if that's not read.' So you need someone to explain to the new immigrants . . . here's what you need to do," she said.

Lara began his effort after finding out that his eldest daughter was having difficulty reading two years ago. A machinist for 11 years at Industrial Tools Inc. of Oxnard, he has a wife of 12 years, Carmen, and three children: 10-year-old Cendy, 7-year-old Maribel and 4-year-old Eric.

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Lara took Cendy to the Ojai Library, where the SchooLinks Homework Center provides students with volunteer tutors after school.

There, Cendy's reading dramatically improved. Pleased with his daughter's progress, Lara two months ago created the Amigos program. Every Friday he calls up a group of parents to remind them to take their children to the Ojai Library.

Between 3:30 and 4:30 p.m., Lara and other volunteers read books to them in Spanish and English. The library has also brought in doctors, police officers and firefighters to speak during this time so that children think about their future.

The idea for LUPE began after a conversation Lara had with one of the bilingual teachers at Topa Topa Elementary School, where his daughter attends classes.

"Senor Lara," he recalled her saying. "We have a problem."

Ojai, where about 16% of the population is Latino, needed a vehicle for Latino parents to receive verbal information in Spanish, Lara decided.

Soon, he began holding discussions every Wednesday with parents at a local church where many took their children to catechism classes. The informal conversations eventually evolved into the nonprofit group LUPE, which meets about once a month at different Ojai school and church sites during the school year.

The group has grappled with a number of issues, such as how to prevent children from joining gangs, how to talk to them about how their school day went and why it's necessary to talk to your child's teacher.

Although some Latino parents said they did not visit the teacher because they were embarrassed by their limited English, Lara found that many did not visit the teachers because they felt asking questions would be rude.

"Teachers are held in high esteem among Latinos," said Oscar Melendez, the program treasurer. "And to have the effrontery to ask a teacher how [your child] is doing and why they aren't doing better--that's really going against the grain. There's an assumption that you don't question authority," he said.

In addition, many of the school parents either could not read or did not know how to read in English. As a result, they could not make sense of the notes sent home by the school, including one explaining a new state law requiring motorists to stay behind school buses with blinking red lights.

Considering how little many of these parents earn, "If they get a ticket, they won't have anything left," Lara said. "We need to communicate this to them."

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