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District promotes cultural integration

In Iran, Silvana Dermegerdichian was highly involved with her children’s school, volunteering with the PTA and greeting everyone from the receptionists to the principal by name.

But when the family immigrated to Southern California four years ago, she found herself linguistically and culturally isolated. Everything about their new Burbank schools seemed strange, from the coed classes to the dress code.

“I couldn’t communicate with the other parents or the teachers, it was really hard for me,” Dermegerdichian said. “You don’t know how to start.”

Now, Burbank Unified has launched a new effort to better engage all parents, but especially non-native English speakers like Dermegerdichian.


Under the terms of the Parent Involvement Challenge, district officials and parent volunteers will track attendance at events including PTA, booster club and school board meetings, said Jackie Amaya-Garcia, president of the District English Learners Advisory Committee.

Participants can double their points if they are escorted to an event by a PTA member, the goal being to foster relationships between parties that might not otherwise mix, Amaya-Garcia said. The parent with the best attendance record will be recognized by the Burbank Unified school board at the end of the academic year, and the top scoring school will be awarded an on-site party.

The challenge is being promoted in English, Spanish and Armenian.

“The ultimate goal is to make Burbank a model of cultural integration, but cultural integration in the sense that I want to learn from you and you want to learn from me,” Amaya-Garcia said. “It is not only one way.”


After her family moved to Burbank from Columbia five years ago, it was the small things that threw her off the most, Amaya-Garcia said. In Columbia, schools nurses are free to give aspirin to a sick child. In the United States, it is prohibited.

American traditions, such as homecoming and prom, can also be difficult to grasp.

“How can I feel part of something I don’t understand?” Amaya-Garcia said.

Motivated by her own experience, she helped establish the Parent Center at Burbank High School, a gathering spot for those trying to set themselves and their children on the right path. A year after launching the center in 2007, she started a series of informational sessions conducted in multiple languages in order to address topics such as AP classes and college admissions.

The Parent Involvement Challenge is the next step, Amaya-Garcia said.

Her efforts have been embraced by district officials and the PTA Council, who said that it can be difficult to recruit such parents to participate in more traditional processes.

“We have to demystify the school system a little bit,” said Supt. Stan Carrizosa. “We have to communicate with them in their native language, [and] understand the things that provide them a sense of confidence and comfort.”

Outreach efforts to immigrant families is critical, especially in a district like Burbank, which has a diverse student body, said Donna Cunningham, vice president of the Burbank Unified PTA Council.


“You really have to build a strong parent-school partnership to ensure the ultimate success of the child,” Cunningham said. “You can’t throw it all on the backs of the teachers, and likewise you can’t throw it all on the backs of the parents. There has to be a real collaborative effort.”

Non-native English speaking families can serve the school district just as much as the district can serve them, Amaya-Garcia said. Many are highly educated, and held respected professional titles in their home countries.

“Just because you can’t speak English doesn’t mean you can’t bring something to the table,” she said.