Elena Sayed moved to Skokie from St. Petersburg three years ago with her Pakistani husband and two of their three children, and she was overwhelmed – “in a mist,” as she describes it. The language, the way of life, the neighborhoods were completely new.
Fortunately, one of Elena’s first steps was to visit the Niles Township Schools’ English Language Learner ELL Parent Center in Skokie, founded by the Township’s school districts in 2008 to serve the largest growing population of immigrants and refugees in the Chicagoland area.
Last October, Open Communities worked with the Center to launch a writing project, funded under a grant by the Sally Mead Hands Foundation, aimed at encouraging immigrants to express their sentiments, concerns and struggles by writing. This in turn would encourage them to take ownership of their own community and engage in shaping it. Elena is one of over a dozen parents in the weekly writing group, from countries ranging from Kyrgyzstan to Egypt and from Poland to Mexico. It is facilitated by Dr. Janise Hurtig of the Community Writing and Research Project, affiliated with the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Since the first day of the workshop, Elena used the Tuesday writing workshop to improve her English and celebrate her two worlds.
When Elena learned about a new program at the Center – the Parent Mentor Program , in which immigrant parents assist classroom teachers at two Skokie elementary schools, Devonshire and Madison – she immediately applied to participate.
Now, besides learning, Elena is able to teach, as she is one of the eight Parent Mentors at Devonshire School, where one of her daughters is enrolled. Elena is sharing her experience at a classroom, working with children and side-by-side with teachers, and speaking in public.
Her positive perspective is infectious, and even a jaded Chicagoan in the middle of winter cannot help but be won over:
“I would like to say that before I came to the U.S.A., I imagined this country as a ‘sunny beach.’ My imagination became a reality because in Chicago there are a lot of sunny days. Sun has positive influences to my mood. I like sun. I like Lake Michigan and its light blue water like in the sea. I like the huge different flowers which decorate city and suburbs. I like smiling people who are very friendly and polite. I enjoy living here. I feel comfortable because of the beauty, nice people; and a good environment makes excellent emotions.”
A World of Parents at Open Communities
Open Communities is proud to have opened the door for a tried-and-true program that helps immigrants and long-time north suburban residents come together through the schools.
Open Communities is the Center’s fiscal agent for the Niles Township Parents’ ELL Center in Skokie as it implements the Parent Mentor Program in two Skokie elementary schools, Devonshire and Madison.
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. They spend two hours a day, four days a week in classrooms, assisting teachers and giving individualized attention to children. Funding comes from the Illinois State Board of Education, with Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights as the administrator.
“Our Parent Mentor program means family partnerships and compassion,” aptly summarizes Chelsey Maxwell, Principal of Madison School. From her perspective, Subia Javed, a parent mentor, adds, “Being a part of this program I am now a part of our community.”