Las Vegas Sun

May 29, 2015

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The Turnaround:

Western High opens classrooms for parents to learn English

This is another in a yearlong series of stories tracking Clark County School District’s efforts to turn around five failing schools.

The challenges of teaching English to Spanish-speaking students are exacerbated when, at home, their parents don’t speak English, either.

And so Western High School is taking those parents under its wings as well.

But that mission has its own challenges.

The very parents who are asked to be supportive of their children are themselves intimidated by the language and cultural barrier, or confused by an unfamiliar and complex education system. Others are holding down multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Still others can’t afford to spend any money for transportation and can’t attend parent-teacher conferences and school events, Sandra Arguello, Western’s community and parent liaison, says.

For an unknown number of families who struggle with English and whose members may be undocumented, parents are skeptical of schools and government, she says, which discourages parents from going to school. Too often, she’s forced to hold teacher conferences via the phone.

“Our Hispanic population doesn’t know the system and are afraid of it,” she says. “(But) parents, they care so much. Our community wants to see students graduate and become lawyers and doctors.”

To encourage more parental engagement from its Hispanic community, Western has literally and figuratively opened its doors, providing special resources to help parents learn how to navigate the school system and help their children graduate and go off to college.

Last year, the school received a grant from the United Way of Southern Nevada to open a Family Engagement Center. Located on the top floor of the main campus building, the resource center provides computers for parents who might not have one at home, and adult ESL classes for non-English-speaking parents.

“It’s about building a community so school feels more like home,” Arguello says. “Our students are failing, we need their help.”

For an extra stipend funded through the grant, Western teachers like Edgar Acosta moonlight as English language tutors for Western parents who don’t speak it at home. Every Tuesday since March, Acosta has been teaching teenagers by day and a few of their parents by night in a marathon 12-hour day.

The twice-weekly class has grown from about five parents when it first started to upward of 15 parents, Acosta said. Word about the free ESL class quickly spread around Western’s central valley neighborhood, which has a high Hispanic population.

“One day, I came in and this room was packed,” Acosta says, recalling having to explain a grant stipulation that the course is only offered to Western parents. “It’s sad when we have to do that.”

Like their English language students, the parents use a combination of computer programs and textbooks to learn English. The course however is more practical; they learn vocabulary, and colloquialisms necessary to go shopping at the supermarket rather than dissecting a piece of literature, Acosta said.

The nighttime classes are quite informal, with plenty of snacks and food for attendees. The friendly atmosphere is conducive to frank personal discussions, Acosta said.

Before a recent class began, one parent lamented to Acosta in Spanish about the difficulty she’s having trying to get child support from her separated husband. As she explained her conundrum, Acosta nodded and advised her to seek legal help.

“I hear these stories a lot; that’s one of the hardest things about this population,” Acosta says afterward. “But parents are very supportive of each other. It’s almost like therapy.”

With each personal story shared with him, Acosta says he feels he is helping to break preconceived notions about government and authority among the Hispanic community.

“We hope to make school less scary for these parents,” he says, smiling. “Plus, it helps to know my kids’ parents. It gives you so much more leverage with the student if you know their parents.”

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