The son of poor laborers in rural Mexico, Ocario Gonzalez doesn’t remember his parents ever helping with his schoolwork.
After struggling with his studies for a few years, Gonzalez left school at 12.
Now the 42-year-old South Los Angeles factory worker is trying to break that cycle with his daughter, Carolina.
When she entered Lillian Elementary School last year, 6-year-old Carolina was ill prepared, Gonzalez said. She knew little about letters, numbers, shapes or colors -- basic learning tools for most kindergartners.
She often cried before school, begging not to go.
Gonzalez and his wife, Maria Arellano, wanted to help her but didn’t know how. But then the couple attended a workshop at the school designed specifically for immigrant parents.
There, kindergarten teachers taught parents simple ways to help their children and reinforce what they were learning in class: tracing numbers in salt on cookie sheets, making letters with Play-doh or simply conversing with them about their day.
“You’re the first teachers of your children,” Principal Susan Ahern told the parents. “We have them six hours a day; you have them for 18.”
Every year thousands of kindergarten- age children of immigrants like Ocario Gonzalez arrive at schools across Southern California unprepared. Often, both parents work or they have so little education themselves that they are at a loss about how to tutor their children.
“Families bring their kids to school blind, knowing nothing,” Maria Arellano said. “It’s frustrating for the kid. What can they do? Nothing.”
The lack of early parental help, educators say, is a major reason so many children of immigrants eventually drop out. If youngsters are unprepared for the basics as they enter school, they are likely to fall further behind as reading becomes essential to learning.
By the third and fourth grade, “they no longer want to try,” said Kionna Hawkins, a Lillian kindergarten teacher who has taught upper grades in summer school and has seen the struggles of students who fell behind early. “They’re very defeated.”
Ahern believes it’s a big problem in Southern California, with its ever increasing population of Mexican and Central American immigrants.
As school and city officials debate long-term education reforms, Lillian Elementary, where most of the nearly 700 students are children of Mexican immigrants, is taking some practical steps to assist parents in instructing their young children.
If the parents “really want to get them out of the cycle of poverty,” Ahern said, “then they have to support their child’s education.”
Ahern is well prepared for the challenge. She once lived in Mexico, wrote her master’s thesis on immigration and is fluent in Spanish.
She also has spent most of her 24-year career in early-childhood education. Before Lillian, she ran a Los Angeles Unified School District center for preschool and kindergarten students in South Gate. “My passion has always been in the primary grades,” she said. “We have to get them early on.”
Ahern arrived at Lillian in May.
That month, parents enrolled their kindergartners for the fall. Ahern and her teachers spent the day testing the children. They found that half of the 120 new kindergartners didn’t know the basics, including how to write their names.
Parents were given exercises and goals to work their children toward during the summer. But when school started in September, the same 60 youngsters were still behind. L.A. Unified policy for focusing on children who are falling behind doesn’t begin until second grade.
But Ahern believed there was no time to waste. She cobbled together funding. She invited the parents of the at-risk students and held two Saturday workshops in October and another pair of in December. In all, parents of 30 of the children attended.
Teachers gave them workbooks and crayons and suggested how they might use them to practice letters and numbers with their children. Parents were taught how to roll Play-doh into letters.
“It’s hard for children to learn letters,” teacher Leti Flores told the parents. “It’s like us learning Chinese.”
Parents were given a list of frequently used words: “here,” “is,” “are,” “the” and others. Take a word and look for it with your children in magazines or on billboards -- be patient, show enthusiasm, the teachers told them.
In a math session, teacher Gloria Sigala urged parents to use shoes and socks to illustrate the concepts of pairs. At the supermarket, Sigala suggested, they should talk to their children about circles, triangles and rectangles.
The children were then brought in, and parents practiced what they’d learned.
Carolina Gonzalez went to her parents’ table. She and her mother took a cookie sheet with salt on it and traced the number 3. Arellano gently shook the cookie sheet. The 3 disappeared and together they traced 4.
“I do think it is our job to teach the parents,” Ahern said. “We have teachers that are awesome and they’re still not getting the results that we want.”
Jose Hernandez, an administrator at L.A. Unified District 6, which includes Lillian, agreed that school officials had to think outside the box.
“The relationship with the parents has to become stronger . . . where we help them support our reading and math programs,” Hernandez said.
But pushing immigrant parents to help their children with schoolwork isn’t always easy. Often, they work long hours and come home too tired to help.
Some think “if the kids are going to school, that’s enough,” said Leti Orozco, a Mexican immigrant and volunteer at Lillian whose daughters attend the school.
Teachers say the students whose parents attended Lillian’s limited experiment last fall are more confident and attentive in class.
Nine of Gloria Sigala’s students didn’t know letters before the workshops. Since then, they have learned most, if not all, of the alphabet. “That’s huge,” she said.
Meanwhile, Ahern plans more workshops in March to suggest other exercises parents can do with their children.
Ocario Gonzalez and Maria Arellano say they’ll be there.
They said Carolina was excited about what she had learned. She now pesters her mother to read to her and help with her ABCs. In the car, they practice by reading letters on billboards and street signs.
“We want her to feel secure that we’re with her,” Maria said, “and that she has our support.”