Reaching Out, Making Connections

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008

When parents of students at Bladensburg Elementary School need help navigating the complex bureaucracy that is the Prince George's County school system, they often wander to a room cluttered with music stands and boxes of chemistry equipment, just outside the main office.

This is the Parent Resource Center, Olga Noriega's room.

As the school's parent liaison, she serves as a bridge between the staff and the community with the ultimate goal of bolstering student achievement. But in a school where more than 83 percent of about 600 students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches -- one commonly used index of poverty -- Noriega sometimes provides much more fundamental assistance.

One day last week, Noriega explained to a parent how to access a Web site that teaches literature. On other days, she holds workshops on what students will be learning at school. Parents come to her for help getting medical exams. She has stockpiles of clothes, shoes and food, in case students have none at home.

"If you want to be making sure the students are here, those are the things you have to do," Noriega said.

Such are the duties of the parent liaisons, employees of a program developed in 2006 by Superintendent John E. Deasy, who placed one in each of the system's more than 200 schools. The positions seemed vulnerable last month when Deasy presented as part of his proposed budget a $3.2 million cost-saving measure that would have cut 70 of the elementary school liaisons and required those remaining to serve two schools. But the Board of Education threw out the proposal two weeks ago after several liaisons spoke out against the measure at an earlier meeting.

"We're just really very pleased that the Board of Education and our system were able to find a more creative way of dealing with this shortfall," said Betty Despenza-Green, the school system's chief of student services. "Ultimately, we know that with their work we improve student achievement."

Among the program's goals is to help poor, transient and non-English-speaking parents, who can easily get lost trying to understand what is needed of them and what resources are available to help their students succeed. The system has given school administrators broad range to define the specific duties of the liaisons, and the role plays out differently from school to school.

"I think it is working," Despenza-Green said. "It is early to claim the kind of robust success I expect of it."

So far, the program has had some success at Bladensburg, where Noriega worked previously with the school's English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, program for several years. Having done this work, she has more experience than most of the liaisons, who began their duties this school year.

Noriega, 40, said she can relate to the immigrant experience that many of the students and their parents face. She came to the United States in 1981, after fleeing her native El Salvador.

"I survived a civil war in my country," she said, thanking God. "I came here with nothing, no language, nothing."

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