Spanish-speaking parents list concerns

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— Gonzalo Mendoza is fortunate. When his sons bring letters home from school, he can read them. Other Spanish-speaking families with children in the Steamboat Springs School District aren't so fortunate.

About 12 of them met at Bud Werner Memorial Library on Wednesday night to present Superintendent Donna Howell with a petition outlining concerns they have for their children and themselves.

"This is about us," Mendoza said. "We are worried that when kids get hurt, that when the schools call, they speak English and we can't understand."

Mendoza's concern that school officials and teachers are unable to communicate with parents was just one listed on the petition, which was compiled from a six-week course parents took called "Engaging Mexican Immigrant Parents in their Children's Education."

The course was designed to educate parents about the differences between the American and Mexican school systems and to help them better understand what their children are going through.

Summer Laws, director of Comunidad Integrada ("integrated community"), said that during the course, parents were able to learn more about the schools and voice concerns about things they thought were affecting their children's educations.

"Parents wanted to know why their students didn't have homework every day, or why there was no dress code," she said. "They are concerned that their students are not punished in school for the things they would have been in Mexico."

Laws said she thought it was important that Howell heard first-hand from parents what they thought, instead of through programs such as Comunidad Integrada or from teachers.

"I'm certainly receptive to talking to any group of parents who have something to say," Howell said.

"Them handing me a petition didn't seem unusual to me. It was no different than if I was talking to any other group of parents."

The parents told Howell they wanted letters and notes from school to be in Spanish, so they would not misinterpret the message, and they requested an interpreter for meetings and conferences. The parents also wanted to know how they could become more involved in schools and help their students with homework.

"Communication is the biggest problem," Mendoza said. "Some people come from Mexico and get embarrassed when they try to tell something because they can't speak English.

"At parent conferences, all the Mexicans stand at the very back because they can't understand anything. We go, but we don't understand anything."

Steamboat Springs High School teacher Tamara Lobb said she noticed students taking advantage of the language barrier. She said students often would tell their parents they don't have homework and then tell teachers they didn't understand the assignments.

"It does get very frustrating for those teachers to talk to parents who don't speak any English," said Lobb, who teaches Spanish.

"I do a lot of interpreting in the schools. I see a lot of frustration from the parents because they feel left out of everything."

Lobb said she was organizing a homework night to help parents understand what homework their students are receiving and how to help them do it.

Lobb's Spanish Honor Society students are going to volunteer for the program as part of a five-hour community service requirement to be in the society. Lobb is gathering information from the other schools in the district to see what needs other teachers have so she can make the program districtwide.

"It won't solve all the problems, but it might start helping," she said.

"You think about the students, and it's got to be a scary situation for both them and their parents."

Howell said the district had taken the parents' concerns seriously for several years, especially because the population of English Language Learners in the schools -- students whose primary language is not English -- doubled from 2003 to 2004, and almost doubled again from 2004 to 2005.

Now, there are about 68 ELL students in the schools.

"The focus of the petition is having information from the schools translated into Spanish and having translators at conferences. We've been working on that," Howell said.

Howell said tackling such a project would be a financial challenge but that administrative officials were looking into creative ways to find money to translate documents, purchase materials and hire one more Spanish-speaking aide.

Now, there is one full-time English as a Second Language teacher, Wren Lovett, two full-time Spanish-speaking aides and a new half-time ELL director in the district, who work to help parents communicate and get involved in the schools.

Howell said she could not say how long it would take to implement all the plans, but she hoped to make progress with translations very soon.

"I feel good about the petition because I know people are interested in it," Mendoza said.

"The schools here in Steam--boat Springs are real good, and we just want our children to have a good education."

-- To reach Alexis DeLaCruz, call 871-4234 or e-mail a delacruz@steamboatpilot.com

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