ROCHESTER — Organizers of the first Latino Parent Conference are already thinking ahead about how to attract more families next year.
But they were encouraged by the turnout of more than 50 families for the inaugural event that was held April 13 at the Edgerton Community Center. The conference not only offered parents information and guidance from education experts — their children also took part in health and wellness activities.
"Personally, this (conference) is so important," said Gloria Sabastro, president of the Rochester City School District’s bilingual council. "We must stay united … as committed parents."
And Sabastro, who helped put the conference together along with staff from the district’s parent engagement and English Language Learners offices, said that she is sure that next year’s parent participation at the conference will grow.
"We (are going) to motivate these parents … so they remember that we Latinos also have rights," she added.
Many Latino parents are not educated about the American school system and the information provided by the conference will be very helpful, noted Iris O’Farril, who learned about the conference from her mother, who works for the school district.
"I would like to know how to better educate myself to better my son’s education," added O’Farril, whose oldest son is a kindergartner at Flower City Community School No. 54.
Such parent involvement is the key to reversing current trends, said Emeterio "Pete" Otero, executive dean of Monroe Community’s College Damon campus. Otero and Awilda E. Ramos Zagarrigo served as speakers during the conference, which had the theme "Against all Odds."
Research shows that of 10 Latino students that start high school, half graduate, said Otero. Of those five, only two graduate from college and only one finds employment, he added. With so many careers dependent on some level of education beyond high school, parents must learn to advocate to ensure their children are receiving the courses necessary to graduate and move on to those careers, Otero remarked.
To develop their advocacy skills, he said that parents should learn their rights, join a group such as the bilingual council, develop relationships with teachers and school principals and call them as needed.
Because when parents start taking charge of their children’s education, they will discover that the city school district is not that different from its suburban counterparts in terms of style and bureaucracy, he explained.
"The biggest difference is that suburban parents are involved and city parents are not," he said. "You are the power …. because learning starts at home."
Ramos Zaggarigo said that Latino parents also must raise their voices to call on educators to improve bilingual education or create successful dual-language programs, as she had growing up in Rochester and Buffalo. Her family moved to the area from Ponce, Puerto Rico, when she was 3.
"It’s so important that we look at being bilingual as an advantage" in today’s global job markets, said Ramos Zagarrigo, president of the New York State Association of Bilingual Education. "School districts should provide bilingual education, and not just for Hispanic and Latino students. School districts should consider dual-language programs for all students."
In addition to advocating for bilingual education, she said that parents also must be aware of their child’s literacy. Research has shown that children who do not read at grade level by third grade are less likely to graduate, said Ramos Zagarrigo. Improving literacy is a goal of the Rochester school district as outlined in recent presentations by Superintendent Bolgen Vargas.
Parents can do their part in improving literacy by engaging their children in even small tasks such as reading signs or food labels in the supermarket, as her mother did and she does with her own children, she added.
"Children whose parents take part in their education are more inclined to learn. Such motivated students tend to participate in class more, care about doing their homework and have higher academic achievements," she noted.
And districts should do their part in engaging parents by helping them overcome barriers that include language barriers, low expectations of teachers, poverty, racism and isolation, noted Ramos Zagarrigo.
Maria Rivera of Rochester knows firsthand about feeling embarrassed about speaking English with an accent. But the Puerto Rico native came to the parent conference with a specific mission: to learn how her 18-year-old son could make up the one class he needs to graduate.
"I want him to move ahead and go on to college," said Rivera.
Districts can help parents like Rivera through open-door policies of communication, said Ramos Zagarrigo. Schools also can offer workshops on such topics as nutrition or college prep and provide open houses that include a meal so families can feel comfortable coming to talk to teachers, she said.
Schools should see their work as a collaboration with families, added Ramos Zagarrigo.
"Teachers and administrators should see parents as integral factors in the academic achievement and well-being of their students and try to foster an atmosphere where parent participation is welcomed and utilized," said Ramos Zagarrigo.