What do Skokie immigrant parents and Open Communities have in common? We love our homes, our neighborhoods, our children, and the richness of our community of diversity. Earlier this week, twenty-six parent volunteers from all over the world visited our Winnetka office as part of a new schools-community partnership facilitated by the Niles Township Parents’ ELL Center and Open Communities. Suburbs today have been characterized as “the new Ellis Island.” Instead of entering our country through city neighborhoods, a significant number of immigrants are settling directly into the suburbs.
Skokie and the communities that surround it are no exception. Niles Township has the fastest growing immigrant population in the northern Chicago area and in School District 68 alone, children enter speaking more than 50 languages. With immigrants coming in from so many nations – from Mexico to Romania, and from Jamaica to Pakistan– the public schools are coming up with new ways to integrate new students, many from financially challenged households, and getting them up to speed on their English.
Corrie Wallace, director of the ELL Center, which provides classes and services to immigrant parents in the Skokie area, heard of the “Parent Mentor Program,” a successful initiative that started in the Logan Square neighborhood in the 1990s, from the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR). She jumped at the chance to bring it to the suburbs.
The goal of the Parent Mentor project is, simply, to help students by helping parents. Immigrant and low-income parents are generally less involved in their children’s schooling than native born and more affluent parents. By engaging parents in the classroom and learning more about their own neighborhoods and opportunities to get involved, they in turn, help their children succeed. Funding comes from the Illinois State Board of Education, with ICIRR as the administrator.
But the ELL Center needed a non-profit fiscal agent. That’s where Open Communities comes in. As a long-standing civil rights organization committed to inclusive and diverse northern suburbs, this was a perfect partnership.
In February, the program began to recruit and train eight parent mentors in each of two Skokie elementary schools, Devonshire and Madison. These schools were selected because they have a high number of immigrant students and students in poverty. Soon, these parents, under the supervision of coordinators and a community organizer, will “go to school.”
Through this program, parents are placed as mentors in classrooms at schools that their children attend, but not in their own child’s classroom. The parent spends four days a week – two hours a day – helping a teacher in his or her classroom. Not only are teachers getting extra assistance in their often overcrowded classrooms, but children are learning skills and talents from these individuals who have so much to offer.
In addition, teachers get to learn about another culture and parents get extra training and experience for their future endeavors. Past parent mentors have gone on to become teachers, namely through a program at Northeastern called Grow Your Own Teachers. Principals have commented that when they walk into the classroom, sometimes they cannot tell who the teacher is and who is the parent mentor.
The 26 parent mentors took their first field trip on February 6th, and it was to Open Communities’ office in Winnetka. Many had never been north of Skokie. One family had only arrived from India four months. But all were united in their enthusiasm for this new opportunity to get involved in their adoptive communities. Through Open Communities, they will also engage in a writing project to tell their stories collectively, and think about how they can help realize their dreams for their families.
As Jackie Cyriac (left, in blue), the organizer the ELL Center hired to coordinate the project and herself an Indian immigrant, said, “As a child of immigrants, I wish my parents has something like this when I was growing up. I think this program has the potential to change the entire trajectory of a family, school, and community in a very positive way. As for me, I already have so much more compassion for the principals I work with – who have to juggle multiple programs in their schools at once. Our parent mentors are an amazing group who had the courage and openness to apply to this new program in Skokie and move their family forward.”
As we work to build more diverse and inclusive communities, it is programs like this that really accomplish that vision. And the fact of the matter is that the very few resources that get put into this program and the parent mentors produce so much for our children and the community as a whole.
(Assistance on this blog posting from Jessica Scheinpflug with the ELL Center. See the Open Communities Facebook page for more photos!)