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Hartford's Academia de los Padres Helps Teach English to Parents of School Kids

And it works!

By Jon Campbell

December 06, 2010

Rosaury Valerio used to be nervous about meeting with her children’s teachers to talk about their education. With limited English language skills, she said, heading to school for a conference was sometimes intimidating, even embarrassing.

“I wanted to learn English, because my daughter, she’s 2 years old,” and she’ll be starting school soon, says Valerio. The Puerto Rico native was eager to avoid the problems she experienced with her older children, already in elementary school.

“When I went to school to talk to the teachers [in the past], it was very difficult,” says Valerio, speaking in clear, if accented English.

Valerio worries less about those kinds of situations after a six-month course called the Academia de los Padres (or “Academy of the Parents”), aimed at a specific sector of Spanish-speaking residents in Hartford’s Park Street and South End neighborhoods. The program focuses narrowly on those residents known in the parlance of the social sciences as low-literate English learners — those who struggle not only with their English, but with literacy in their native language as well. The Academia provides literacy classes for both children and their parents, helping moms and dads prepare their kids for school before they’re ever enrolled.

The Academia’s first graduating class of 21 received diplomas on Wednesday at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford, in a ceremony that included skits, a dance recital and an address by Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra.

Art Feltman, a former state lawmaker and Hartford City Councilman, is the program’s executive director, and said the Academia was modeled after similar family education initiatives in Colorado and Middletown. Because young children spend so much time with their parents, the extent of the vocabulary employed by adults in the home and the general level of literacy can have profound effects on child development.

“When children of educated parents enter school, they know about three times as many words,” as parents with lower levels of literacy, says Feltman. While it may be counterintuitive, Feltman says, even expanding a parent’s Spanish vocabulary can have a profound effect. That’s because hearing complex words and sentences in any language helps children lay the neural pathways required for language learning in the future.

Feltman said the holistic approach to literacy education has been proven to work, and classes as short as six weeks have been shown to reliably bring children to or above grade level by the start of kindergarten.

The Academia goes even further, however, with a 26-week course that’s among the most comprehensive in the country. Aside from classroom instruction, the Academia also provides extra support services like childcare and transportation, essential for parents juggling work and myriad other responsibilities. Four of the women who graduated on Wednesday, Glendy Garcia, Magda Posso, Yajaira Oquendo and Valerios, all said that it would have been impossible for them to complete the program without the extra help.

Feltman said the group performs outreach through local social service agencies and churches, as well as through television ads and even door-to-door recruitment in targeted neighborhoods.

One of the biggest challenges for parents in the program, Feltman says, is a feeling familiar to anyone who’s ever stumbled over a menu item at an ethnic restaurant; it’s simply embarrassing to speak a language that you’re not comfortable with.

“We have an issue of shyness. Parents who are shy in any language,” says Feltman. Reluctance to admit to a language difficulty can sometimes result in miscommunications in the real world, Feltman says, and can be a barrier to learning in the classroom. Feltman credited the long-term format of the program, and the twice-weekly meetings, with helping to create a sense of community among the participants, and an atmosphere where participants could feel comfortable making mistakes. As it turned out, even the planned six-month running time wasn’t enough — participants voted to add an additional three weeks of classroom time.

Valerio said she’s now better able to help her daughter with the challenges of learning to read, and better fortified for those important parent-teacher conferences. The program has also given her more confidence about her own future prospects, and made her goal of earning a college degree seem more attainable.

Valerio said she had already recommended the program to a large number of her friends, and hopes the new session, which begins in March, will be even bigger. She asked a reporter to pass on this message to readers.

“Tell everyone to come.”

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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