Loudoun program helps parents of children from other countries navigate school system

FéFernandes and Marlene Ubilla went back and forth between English and Spanish with ease at a recent meeting at Meadowland Elementary School in Sterling for parents of children from other countries. They were trying to help parents bridge a gap between school and home.

Ubilla, the school’s Parents as Educational Partners (PEP) teacher and a kindergarten English Language Learners aide, teaches parents the ins and outs of the Loudoun County public schools. Fernandes, the school’s parent liaison, gathers their children in a room nearby for “homework club.”

The program has benefited not only parents and students but also the school.

“We get the parents in so they can learn more about the school system and, in our case, learn more about what we actually do here,” said Fernandes, who as parent liaison also makes home visits to help families set up homework stations or find resources in the community for needs such as clothing and dental care. “And we let them know who’s who” at the school, Fernandes said.

Loudoun’s foreign-born population has grown from 11.3 percent in 2000 to 21.7 percent in 2010, according to U.S. Census data. At Meadowland, 25 percent of the students are enrolled in the ELL program.

The public school system implemented the parent liaison program in 1996 and PEP in 2006 to help the growing immigrant population acclimate. Many of the parents are struggling with a new language, and they also have to learn school rules and procedures, Fernandes and Ubilla said.

“It’s a way to make them feel more comfortable [in the school],” Ubilla said. “They don’t see us as an authority, we’re here to help them, to welcome them.”

Blanca Salvatierra, whose daughter is in fifth grade at Meadowland, has been attending PEP classes since her daughter was in kindergarten. “It’s excellent, because they teach us a lot of things about the school,” she said. “They give us information for when we need it and they explain how they do everything in each class.”

The Meadlowland group meets Tuesdays at the school and has lessons on a variety of topics, such as how to call the school nurse when a child is sick and what school librarians and counselors do.

PEP is funded through the county’s ELL department, said Charisse Rosario, the PEP coordinator for county schools.

“This program is specific to parents who are not born in the U.S. school system,” Rosario said. “They tell us every day how they didn’t have all of this in school. . . . They just had to go to school and come home and for many of them, education was really just learning how to work on the farms and provide for their family or help with the chores.”

The homework club lets parents who don’t have child care go to the meetings. Their children get extra help with their school work from Fernandes, Meadowland kindergarten teacher Kelly Sisson and student volunteers.

“It teaches them the routines, the value of doing your homework, and it gives them such confidence for the next day,” Fernandes said. “They say, ‘I can’t wait to tell the teacher that I’m a day ahead.’ ”

Rosario said parent involvement at the schools has increased since the PEP program started. Parents are volunteering in the classroom more, attending parent-teacher conferences and spending more time reading with their children, she said. Rosario would like to see even more participation.

“We have a long way to go,” she said. “We want to reach all of the ELL parents, and sometimes with these meetings, we have parents who work two jobs, and it’s just so hard for them to attend a meeting. We do the best that we can to be accessible to them.”

Mari-Jane Williams covers parenting and family issues for Local Living and schools for the Prince William and Loudoun Extras.
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