COSTA MESA — Ofelia Cortez went from living in the impoverished southern Mexican state of Oaxaca to learning how to run the Xerox machine at Rea Elementary School.
She's one of an estimated 100 parents, most of them Latino, who are learning real-life skills in the halls and corridors of the school, long considered the heart of the city's Westside among Latinos here — what with the Boys & Girls Club next door and the Adult Education site down the street.
It's the school's latest attempt, at the behest of the school district and the school board, to get all parents actively involved in their children's education by having them visit the school site from time to time and log a few hours of volunteer work.
Earlier this month, with much fanfare, Principal Anna Corral ratcheted up the standards and expectations the school has of parents by opening and dedicating in their honor a Parent Room, with a day-care toddler room next door.
Newport-Mesa Unified Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard was on hand to speak a little Spanish to the parents, telling them about their crucial role in the educational development of their children. Board members Michael Collier, who is half Latino, and Judy Franco, and board President Karen Yelsey looked on with pride.
The juxtaposition in culture, albeit with a common interest in mind, couldn't have been more evident as dozens of Latino parents — some from Mexico, some from El Salvador — milled about in the ribbon cutting ceremony's aftermath.
They enjoyed tamales while they checked out the charts on the walls of the new Parent Room, where they can see how many hours they've volunteered in the past few weeks and compare them to weeks before and the parents alongside them.
Like school children to a certain extent, the parents were learning a little bit themselves, only on a different, more practical level.
"I want to give back to the community," said a Spanish-speaking Cortez, 33, a mother of three who moved to Costa Mesa a little more than a decade ago and whose husband works as a welder.
The cultural barriers are enormous, especially among people like Cortez, who speaks little English and hails from a part of Mexico that is heavily indigenous and is often not a part of mainstream Mexico. Where she comes from, Cortez said, attending school was a luxury among the well-to-do set, not the common folks who had to toil in the fields.
"It's a dream come true that my children can actually go to school in the United States," she said, referring to her three little ones, the eldest now in kindergarten classes.
The spirit of the program, in which parents take "Parenting Wisely" classes and workshops, is slowly changing the scope and manner in which the school is reaching out to Latino families in need, said Literacy Family Coordinator Megan Brown.
Although reaching out to the Latino families at Rea is nothing new, the intense manner in which parents are being recruited has increased a tad, which has shone through in the numbers. Brown said 385 families have become active at the school, especially in the "Parenting Wisely" class.
"When you have children, it doesn't come with a guidebook," said Brown, a 1991 graduate of Estancia High School and a mother of four. "I have children at home, and even I have learned from the classes that are being taught here."
She said it's one thing to give an order, but the manner in which you give it is even more important — especially when it concerns homework.
Teaching the parents to be stern in a loving manner is just one of the philosophies of the six-week class, she said.
Teachers will also hold workshops where they will teach parents how to use computers, how to support their children in math and English, and how to reinforce good study habits. The classes mostly will be in the mornings, but administrators are also looking at evening slots for working parents.
The classes will be taught in English and Spanish, with an emphasis on learning English, but deferring to Spanish when necessary.
"I can't wait for the classes to begin," said Angeles Navarro, mother of 7-year-old, Gustavo.