Make Conquista Known

In its recent report on educating students who have limited English proficiency, the County Council's Office of Legislative Oversight emphasized that Montgomery County public schools must empower parents and guardians to support their children's academic achievement[Montgomery Extra, July 7].

County schools have developed a secret weapon: a five-session course called Conquista Tus Suenos (Realize Your Dreams), designed specifically for Latino parents and guardians and delivered in Spanish by facilitators Carlos Devis and Fernando Cruz-Villalba.

What makes Conquista a secret weapon? Although it's a great course, people don't know about it. The Blair Cluster ran Conquista in the spring, but it happened only by chance -- not one person among our cluster leadership knew about it until I happened to hear about it from one of the facilitators during a chance conversation. Yet the demand is clearly there: Nearly 80 people registered and attended one or more sessions; 35 completed the free program.

Montgomery schools could make considerable headway in addressing the problems that the council's report identified simply by publicizing the existence of the Conquista course and allocating the resources to make it available.

These are the steps I recommend to Montgomery schools:

1. Publicize the availability of this course for which the county has already paid the developmental cost and for which the schools have facilitators under contract.

2. Increase the number of Conquista sessions delivered each school year.

3. Mandate (and provide funding specifically for) at least one Conquista course per year in areas (such as the Blair Cluster and other red-zone clusters) that have high concentrations of Latino families.

4. Increase the level of staff support to organize and implement Conquista. Consider hiring a Conquista graduate on a part-time or contract basis to do some of the work required to organize and recruit for Conquista.

5. Restore the community outreach worker position to Blair High School. Get some additional staff support for Blair's ESOL resource teacher. Make Latino outreach positions permanent. These kinds of support services for Latino families are absolutely necessary if we expect to increase academic achievement among Latino students.

6. Mandate that each Conquista course include a sixth "celebration and resource fair" session. Our Blair Cluster Conquista pioneered a feature that I hope will be included in all future courses: At the urging of my co-organizer, Stacey Gurian-Sherman of JJ FAIR, we held a sixth session after the five classes. That sixth session was a celebration and a resource fair.

We had asked participants what kinds of help they needed and did our best to respond to those issues. Consequently, we invited representatives from organizations such as the Blair Credit Union (to help participants establish credit), a mortgage broker whose personal mission is to help Latinos buy homes, the YMCA Child and Family Services (to inform about free and low-cost programming for children and youths), the Latin American Youth Center (a DC group expanding to Langley Crossroads shortly), and school and PTSA representatives from our Cluster schools. Board of Education members Valerie Ervin and Nancy Navarro and Community Superintendent Steve Bedford joined us to hear what participants want and need from the schools.

As is so often the case, we know how to solve this problem. All we need is the will and the resources.

Fran Rothstein

Silver Spring

Silver Spring Is Wisely Led

As a resident of Silver Spring, I was embarrassed by the comments by Gail Gugel, vice president of the Seven Oaks-Evanswood Civic Association (of which I am also a member), in Marc Fisher's June 16 [Metro] column, "In Silver Spring, a Sticky Situation for Duncan."

To paraphrase, she said that Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan had let Silver Spring down in deciding not to build a skating rink and concert pavilion adjacent to the civic building under construction. I do not share this sense of "letdown."

We Silver Spring residents are already benefiting tremendously from our rejuvenated downtown, financed by a combination of private and public money. For example, the American Film Institute (AFI) Silver Theater, co-sponsor with Discovery of the annual "SilverDocs" documentary film festival that just concluded, has been a fantastic addition to our community. A string of county executives talked about revitalizing Silver Spring, or tried to do it and failed. Doug Duncan got it done. For that, I feel tremendous gratitude.

Furthermore, it appears that Mr. Duncan has not closed the door forever on these enhancements. He is simply trying to restrain county spending by shelving certain discretionary projects at a time when construction costs are high.

The revitalization is still a work in progress, and I agree with Ms. Gugel that the skating rink and concert pavilion should be built -- at some point. But I accept Mr. Duncan's decision to defer these projects, believing that he and the County Council have fully demonstrated that Silver Spring is as important as any other Montgomery County community.

Leslie K. Downey

Silver Spring