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LA parent voice: After-school tutoring, literacy programs, finding community partners — this mom has learned to ‘do whatever it takes’ to help English learners

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | October 24, 2018

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Every week, we sit down with Los Angeles parents to talk about their students, their schools, and what questions or suggestions they have for their school district. (See our previous interviews.)

Hilda Ávila has a very clear educational goal for her fourth-grade son this year: She wants him to move out of the English learner designation and complete the four-step reclassification process.

So she is modeling for her son the importance of reading and getting involved in literacy activities. She also helps others do the same, as head of a parent group that runs an after-school tutoring program for struggling English learners and students who need extra help preparing for the state achievement tests.

English learners make up more than half the students at her son’s school, Fries Avenue Elementary in Wilmington, a low-income and predominantly Latino community in South Los Angeles.

Only 25 percent of Fries students met or exceeded standards on this year’s state tests in English language arts and math — a decrease from last year. A bare 1.4 percent of English learners met reading standards, even lower than the district’s rate of 3.6 percent. In math, the school scored about the same as the district: under 6 percent.

“Our school community’s priority is to raise students’ achievement because right now their academic performance is low, particularly for students who have not yet reclassified and have not been able to pass the state test” for English language proficiency, known as the ELPAC.

Ávila felt that the lack of after-school support was a key factor for many students still struggling to reclassify. So she and a group of parent volunteers decided to divert some school funds that were going for parent workshops and use the money instead to extend the after-school tutoring program.

Fries now has after-school tutoring three days a week for students who need additional help meeting grade-level standards. Two of the classes are for English learners who need intensive support to help them reclassify, a district spokeswoman said. It’s “a locally designed intervention that provides help based on the students’ test scores and other criteria,” and she said it’s paid through the school’s Title III budget.

“Sadly, there are many Latino students who are not reclassifying because their parents don’t have access to resources to help them with reading and writing, even in their own language,” Ávila said.

Ávila believes that in order for a parent to help their child reach his or her educational goals, “you cannot always expect to get everything easy. Sometimes you have to go out there, knock on many doors and find it. You have to do whatever it takes!”

She has also learned how to find help from community partners.

“If the mountain won’t come to you, you must go to the mountain!” She requested that the city’s San Pedro office provide a “mobile library,” which now comes to the school once a month so all students can check out books and have reading time after school.

Educating other parents about how literacy can change their lives is a passion of hers, she said. Over the last three years, Ávila has been learning how to become an advocate not only for her son’s education but also for other kids in her community. In 2015, she became a volunteer in her son’s classroom. She then joined several parent committees, including the English Learners Advisory Committee.

Last year, she became a parent workshop facilitator for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles’s Motheread program that the organization coordinates through a Wilmington service provider, La Cuna. The program, which helps develop parents’ skills in reading engagement and promotes home literacy, works with about 200 parents from throughout the Wilmington elementary schools, mostly at the request of the principals, according to the United Way.

Ávila is also on the organizing committee for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles’s Annual Fall Into Literacy Book Festival, which drew about 3,500 people on Oct. 13. The book fair aims to promote childhood literacy by providing resources, including free books in English and Spanish, and interactive learning experiences for low-income families for whom English is their second language.

How did you get the extra support and resources for English learners at your school?

At our school, there was tutoring only once a week and only for three kids per class. What we did was, instead of using the money allocated for parent workshops and attending conferences, we decided to use that money to extend the after-school tutoring for more kids and to have it twice a week. We asked retired teachers if they could teach those students after school, so we use the money to pay them, and we also looked for other tutoring programs offered in libraries or other community partners. Now, we have about 12 to 15 kids attending tutoring three times a week.

Parents need to know that if they join a strong group in their community, they can take advantage of local resources. We now have a community group formed by two parents from each of the seven elementary schools in the area. We share resources and expertise about what is working in our schools.

What is your primary request for the district this year?

What concerns me the most right now is the teachers strike. Personally, I have a very good relationship with my board member, Richard Vladovic, and his team. I have had the opportunity to work closely with them, and they even have recognized my work as a parent volunteer. As a  mother, it is my obligation to keep myself informed. At the end of the day, it is about my child’s education, but I also ask the teachers about their position because I have seen teachers giving up their lives for their students. I have also seen the opposite. I have told them I respect them, but at the end of the day, all I care about is my child’s education. So I’m hopeful that there’s going to be an agreement between the teachers and the district.  

How do you encourage other parents to get involved?

I teach other parents that they have rights first. Then I teach them that they also need to make a commitment. My job is once they understand both well, then they can start advocating for their children. I tell them as much as we love our kids and we want the best for them, we cannot just get offended, we need to be aware of the kind of child we have, not the one we wish we have. Our children are not always the superstar student. We need to work with them first, help them grow their skills. Once we have done our part, then we can start asking more for them. It’s our responsibility to make sure that our children are reaching the expectations they are supposed to at school.

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