A new program at Norge Elementary School is opening literacy doors not for students, but for parents.
In November, Literacy for Life, a local nonprofit that promotes literacy for adults, started the Empowering Parents program at Norge. The program is designed to help parents learning English as a second language with literacy in a variety of ways.
“Basically what we want to do for success is to try and take it where people are comfortable,” said Joan Peterson, executive director of Literacy for Life. “So taking it to an individual school, we can reach the parents at that school.”
The program started at Matthew Whaley Elementary School two years ago and was found to be very popular with the families. In the 2017-2018 school year, the program served 32 parents but then doubled the following year to serve 61 parents.
So far this year, it has already worked with 27 parents.
The program is funded through the Dreyfus Foundation and the Virginia Literacy Foundation.
The program currently works with three modules. One discusses classic children’s books and teaches parents how to act out different roles and make reading a priority in the household.
The second teaches parents about understanding and accepting resources in the community. The third teaches parents about school engagement and how to have conversations with a child’s teacher or school.
The final module covers medical terminology and teaches parents how to ask questions and understand paperwork for themselves and their children.
The idea for the first module was based on a similar program done with mothers in jail. When mothers were separated from their children, they would teach the parent literacy skills, such as giving the characters different voices, and send a recording home.
With that program, parents can learn the skills and use them at home.
“Parents are teachers first,” said Francis Falcon, program coordinator. “They’ll get more from parents and the example they’re setting at home. If they see the parent put that effort into reading, it might be the spark that ignites a love of reading.”
Falcon said the various aspects of the books can help connect parents and children because the stories might tackle or bring up difficult topics.
“Sometimes it’s difficult for parents and children to have conversations about things like bullying or feeling not as smart as the others,” she said. “These books look at topics like diversity and help to normalize them.”
At the end of the program, parents are given one book to take home to start a library with their families.
The other parts of the program also brings a more practical aspect to lessons. Falcon said for some parents, they come to the country with advanced degrees but just don’t understand English. This makes it difficult when their child comes home and asks for help with their homework.
But through the class, parents can learn aspects of the language that are specifically directed toward navigating life as a parent with a young student.
“For [English speakers] these tasks can be a bit of a chore, but for an ESL parent to figure it out, it can be intimidating,” Falcon said. “They can be afraid of the language barrier. So when we talk about it and prepare in class, it’s easier to feel more confident when the time comes to communicate.”
Many of the families come from South America, Mexico, Costa Rica and Brazil, Falcon said.
Peterson said the program will hopefully keep expanding and the organization will in the future try to offer it on a rotating basis at different schools. But for now, the organization expects to see the program at Norge continue to grow in numbers.
“A good way motivator for parents is their children” Peterson said. “A lot of what we’re doing is empowering parents to take their skills into the community.”