BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — On a cold night in January, the Bentley Elementary School held a graduation — but not for students.
Fourteen parents were honored for completing Making A Difference, a program to help adults assist their children with homework.
Mayor Kim Driscoll and Superintendent Stephen Russell attended, along with the graduates’ families. Several children were excited because they knew their mothers had been going to school just like they do.
Some of the same parents were also taking citizenship and English as a Second Language classes at Bentley. And they were getting homework assignments, just like their kids.
“We’d hear from parents who say, ‘We sit down together and do our homework together,’” said Gabrielle Montevecchi, the assistant principal at Bentley.
Since its state designation more than a year ago as a Level 4 school based on low scores on the statewide MCAS exams, Bentley has been working hard to improve. A major effort has been directed at parents, many of whom are poor or come from the Dominican Republic or other Spanish-speaking countries and, as a result, speak only limited English. In the past, many of those parents also had little interaction with the school.
Convinced that greater parental involvement in both school activities and academics is a key to turning around Bentley, Principal Renata McFarland has worked hard to get more parents to walk through the door.
Along with pancake breakfasts and pot-luck dinners, Bentley has been holding educational programs — none more novel than the homework class.
The idea came from the First Baptist Church, a small congregation on Lafayette Street that received a grant from the American Baptist Church to train adults in the community as homework mentors. The theory behind the program was that parental help at home has a lot to do with success at school.
The church became one of Bentley’s community partners last year, bought Spanish-English dictionaries for the parents along with other supplies, and hired a program coordinator.
After graduating a handful of parents last spring, the class doubled in size this fall.
The parents were eager to help their children, a school official said, and so determined to attend classes that a few even walked to Bentley.
The organizers of Making A Difference learned that many of the adults had little schooling themselves and did not realize the important role parents — and homework — play in a child’s success.
“Some of these parents are new immigrants to this country and aren’t familiar with the educational system,” said the Rev. Renee Wormack-Keels, pastor of First Baptist.
Due to cultural differences, many were hesitant to talk to teachers or to ask questions about how their children were doing, officials said. Some even thought helping their kids at home was “cheating,” Montevecchi said.
“It really was an education for parents to understand that we really want their input and need their support,” she said.
The program stressed the importance of setting up a study area at home, stocking it with supplies, checking on homework assignments and filling out reading logs. It encouraged parents to read with their children — even in Spanish.
“Literacy is literacy,” said Montevecchi.
Parents were told that their efforts can reap benefits for their children.
“One of the things we are seeing,” Wormack-Keels said, “is that when a child has a parent who is engaged and supporting their learning, that child gains more confidence in their own ability.”
Bentley’s efforts to reach out to parents were greatly aided by Angela DeLuca, a bilingual parent liaison who has developed a strong bond with parents and who served as a go-between.
Even some Bentley parents signed up as mentors this fall.
Church and school officials are encouraged by the response. Some of the parents also attended math workshops, or have asked for more help in reading.
School officials hope the program will give parents more skills and confidence, and get them more involved at home and school. Some of that may already be happening.
“The evening of the graduation,” Montevecchi said, “we had two parents come forward and say they definitely will help with the next round” of homework class.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.