Aurea Gonzalez knows how important it is to get involved in her children's schools. Five years ago, her oldest daughter stopped going to sophomore classes at Einstein High School and Gonzalez didn't find out until two months later--way too late to do anything about it.
"I knew nothing about what was happening with her," said Gonzalez, a Mexican immigrant who lives in Wheaton and speaks limited English.
Thursday night, Gonzalez was one of about three dozen parents who attended Einstein's first-ever meeting especially for the parents of Hispanic freshmen, an introduction to the school that was conducted primarily in Spanish. "There are so many parents who have so little information," she said. "This is a great help for us."
Einstein, in Kensington, is one of many schools in the Washington area in which Latino enrollment has risen, now to nearly a third of its 1,600 students. Like other schools, it has struggled to improve the academic performance of those students, who along with African Americans continue to post lower scores on standardized tests and other measures of achievement than their white and Asian classmates. The issue is so critical that Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry Weast has made closing the achievement gap his top priority.
"We're basically not going to be successful working with students unless we can convince parents to be our partners," said Einstein Principal Richard L. Towers. "And I think the Latino community, in particular, has been alienated from many of our institutions, including schools."
Last week's meeting was designed to help parents shed some of those feelings of alienation, first by addressing them in their native language.
"So many parents have had the experience of going to PTA meetings or other meetings where nobody speaks Spanish and we don't know how to speak English or don't feel comfortable speaking English, and that's just very frustrating," said Hector Lazo, a Salvadoran immigrant who is president of the school's Hispanic parents committee.
Yet it was a typical back-to-school meeting in other ways. Towers urged parents to become involved in their children's education and to help prepare them for college. And school officials gave general information about graduation requirements and the availability of counseling and tutoring.
The school's PTA president urged parents to join the group, and Lazo signed up more than a dozen parents to participate in the Hispanic parents committee.
For many parents, the fact that they could get this information in Spanish was critical.
"This is very, very important for me," parent Maria Elena Rocha said in Spanish. Rocha, who arrived at the meeting 15 minutes early with her daughter Beatriz, just emigrated from Mexico this summer. Everything, not only the language but the educational system itself, is new to her. "I want to know what's going on. But I just arrived here two months ago. I don't understand any English."
Esperanza Monterroza, a Salvadoran immigrant, concurred. "This is a great help for parents who don't know the English language, just so they can get the information they need to help their children be successful," said Monterroza, whose oldest son is in the ninth grade at Einstein. "I think it will help more parents get involved, and that can only help us as a community."
Linna M. Barnes, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, said many schools in the county have been reaching out to Latino parents for years. But those efforts, she said, often have been limited to translating newsletters and correspondence to parents, or to efforts to provide translators at PTA meetings.
"I think this is becoming more and more of an issue in the county," Barnes said, "so the efforts going on at Einstein are really important."
School officials said future meetings for Latino parents will offer information such as how to get their children enrolled in honors and advanced placement classes. Although organizers said they wished more Hispanic parents had attended the meeting, they were pleased that those who were there said they would help reach out to other parents. Another meeting is scheduled for this month.
"It was a good first step," said Tony Cartagena, a student support specialist at Einstein who called more than 100 parents to inform them of the meeting. "An important step."