Chicago parents step into classrooms to help bridge learning gaps

With students back in classrooms full time, trained parent assistants are returning to help with unfinished learning and to build community.

WBEZ
Parents at McAuliffe Elementary School on Chicago's near Northwest Side went through training recently to assist in classrooms and help out at their school through a parent mentor program. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ
WBEZ
Parents at McAuliffe Elementary School on Chicago's near Northwest Side went through training recently to assist in classrooms and help out at their school through a parent mentor program. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ

Chicago parents step into classrooms to help bridge learning gaps

With students back in classrooms full time, trained parent assistants are returning to help with unfinished learning and to build community.

Chicago teacher Karina Pedroza has been getting to know her students over the last few weeks and going over basic math concepts to see where they stand academically.

Pedroza teaches math and science to fourth and fifth grade English learners at Monroe Elementary, a mostly Hispanic school near Logan Square on the North Side. She has noticed her students need a lot of one-on-one support.

“They do not know how to add and subtract,” Pedroza said. “And when they’re in fourth grade, adding and subtracting is a second-grade skill.”

Addressing learning gaps created during the pandemic is something Chicago Public Schools teachers saw coming. The potential unfinished learning is not only evident across many CPS classrooms, but national test data also shows students are behind in reading and math compared to where they usually are in a non-pandemic year. Low-income and Black and Latino students are among the most affected.

Now more than ever, Pedroza said she needs all the support she can get. CPS said it plans to hire 850 tutors this school year to help. But while that’s in process, she and other teachers are turning to trained parent assistants, also known as parent mentors, to help in the classroom. And many say the benefits go far beyond academics — giving parents new skills and helping to build up a school community.

Trained parents have assisted teachers in CPS classrooms for years. They help make sure students understand assignments, complete work, and follow along in class. Their services continued online during remote instruction last year, but it was challenging.

As teachers and students re-learn to be in the classroom this fall, the parent mentors are getting ready to join them.

Pedroza already has plans for them.

“I’m going to have the parent mentor working on those lost skills with those students in order to build a stronger foundation as the year goes on,” Pedroza said. “So then when I start teaching the actual curriculum to them, they have some background knowledge.”

“We want our children’s education to matter”

More than 100 CPS schools have parent mentor programs, which are funded by the state and also get financial support from individual schools. This month, hundreds of new parents are getting trained.

On a recent day, inside the cafeteria at McAuliffe Elementary School, which serves mostly Hispanic students on the near Northwest Side, a group of about 10 moms are among the new trainees.

“We’re looking for the same thing,” said Laquita Simmons, who was there training the women through the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, which has run parent mentor programs for more than two decades. “We want our children’s education to matter. We want to matter.”

Simmons started off as a parent mentor, one of many who found a way to be an extra set of eyes, ears, and a voice at their school.

“It felt good to be just around a group of diverse strong women,” Simmons said.

Many of the parents are immigrants, some are stay-at-home moms who want to develop skills and be close to their children. Some have limited education, but they get trained each week on the lessons their students are learning.

Pedroza said parents bring a level of patience teachers often can’t muster.

“As a teacher, I’m talking to you, and now I have to go make copies, and I have to go get the kids and I have to make sure I have the grades in,” she said. There is a motherly and calmer demeanor about the parent mentors that helps students feel more comfortable in the classroom, she said.

Other teachers say these parents are a direct connection to the school community in which they work. When students can’t articulate an issue, parents are there to support them and advocate for them.

At some schools, parents are also helping with outreach around vaccinations and COVID-19 testing.

Benefits for parents

Parent mentors are also working on goals they’ve set for themselves and skills they hope to gain during their time in school. They also get a stipend.

Some have moved on and gotten jobs as teacher assistants, clerks, or taken jobs working in the school cafeteria where they mentored. Others have decided to go back to school.

Last year parents provided assistance remotely, but it became harder to execute.

“Reaching out to teachers, getting teachers to respond back to emails if they wanted a parent, that was really hard,” Simmons said. “Even getting in contact with parents, trying to get the supplies and things that they needed in a timely manner.”

Now, they are coming together again. These parents say they’ve longed to be inside the classrooms, helping students academically, and keeping their school safe

Some school principals are also thrilled to see their school community finally coming back together.

“There needs to be trust with our families in our communities,” said Ryan Belville, the McAuliffe principal. “I don’t live in this community. I lean on [parent mentors] to … understand what we need to be doing as a school community to continue to grow.”

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.