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Parents go to school to help their children learn

May 09, 2012

Children aren’t the only ones attending classes at Thew Elementary School in Tempe. Many of their parents come to the school library for two hours each week, to learn how to help their children succeed in school so they can go to college one day.

The parents are learning how to make homework and school attendance a priority, what the grading system means, and how to work with teachers. They’re also learning how to save money for college.

Thew School is one of 53 Phoenix-area schools hosting the ASU American Dream Academy, a 10-week program offered through the College of Public Programs at Arizona State University.

Since 2006, the award-winning program has graduated more than 20,000 parents and had an impact on more than 50,000 students in elementary, middle and high school. Children of parent graduates receive a symbolic ASU student Sun Card, a presentation so meaningful that parents frame them on their students’ walls, says Alex Perilla, director of the program. One father asked for extras so he could make a mobile for his infant son’s crib.

“Many of these parents never dream their children could go to college," Perilla says. "They don’t know how to get there, how to give support at home and how to set high expectations. This is the first time in their lives they’ve experienced a helping hand from a major American institution. The program really dramatically changes things.”

Sandra Campos sat at the back of a financial literacy class at Thew with an infant and toddler son, having already completed the basic “Realizing the American Dream” series of classes. She says the academy showed her how to give her first- and fifth-graders a leg up in their learning.

“They tell us to make sure the children come to school, and to ask their teachers every week how they are doing,” she says. “They show how we can give kids a clean, comfortable space to do homework, and make sure they have time. I make a schedule so that every day they eat a snack after school, then do their homework.

“Now we’re learning how to save for college, how to open an account for them at a bank, even if it’s only a few dollars a week. If you never see the money, you don’t miss it.”

The initial academy program covers terminology and curriculum, but it also goes over such concepts as self-esteem, communication, discipline and leading by example. Parents are urged to take responsibility for their children’s education, not just leave it up to the school. Talking regularly with teachers and acting as advocates for their children, an uncomfortable prospect for many, are emphasized.

The program is free to participants, funded by grants and aimed at Title I schools, which receive federal funding for parental engagement programs. ASU contracts with the schools. About 90 percent of American Dream Academy (ADA) parents are Hispanic, most of them Spanish-speaking, and about 40 percent of these families live below the poverty level.

Money Smart, the financial literacy series of classes, was added two years ago. Next fall, ADA also will meet parental requests by offering classes in English and computer skills.

“I tell my children all the time that they have to do a good job in school to get to college,” says Marta Renteria, mother of a kindergartener and a second-grader. “I don’t let them go to the park because that’s where the bums hang out, and they’re not going to end up like that. My son wants to be a scientist, and my daughter a veterinarian. I want them to go to college and to achieve.”

Established as a way to increase the pipeline of underserved students who qualify for enrollment at ASU, the academy has had a dramatic impact on K-12 education in the Phoenix area, having served 322 schools and organizations. Teachers say they have seen an increase in parental involvement, which helps raise the level of education for all students.

In 2009 the academy received a national award for its impact on the community – the C. Peter Magrath University Community Engagement Award. Last year ADA received a three-year, $165,561 grant from The Steele Foundation of Phoenix to expand its program. It also receives significant support from the Helios Foundation, Salt River Project, State Farm Insurance, BBVA-Compass and others.