On a mission

School district program aims to help parents guide their school children

Left to right: Ge Thao-Lor is a case manager for McManus Elementary; Maria Velazquez is a parent participating in the Parents on a Mission workshops; and Martha Hansen-Newton is a case manager for Bidwell Junior High School. Velazquez said the program “helps us talk to our kids. Before I got mad. Now I’m more patient and calm. I have more contact with them and joke around more.”

Left to right: Ge Thao-Lor is a case manager for McManus Elementary; Maria Velazquez is a parent participating in the Parents on a Mission workshops; and Martha Hansen-Newton is a case manager for Bidwell Junior High School. Velazquez said the program “helps us talk to our kids. Before I got mad. Now I’m more patient and calm. I have more contact with them and joke around more.”

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This story was reported in partnership with ChicoSol, an online bilingual magazine. Visit www.chicosol.org for more info.

Ge Thao-Lor remembers growing up without television Monday through Thursday every week. Her mother squirreled away the family’s 13-inch TV, hiding it in a closet, where it stayed until Friday.

On weekends, Thao-Lor and her 10 siblings were allowed to take television breaks from homework and housework.

Now, Thao-Lor is a parent herself, as well as a staffer at McManus Elementary serving as a kind of parents’ guide. On March 26, she will begin teaching a six-week session from the Parents on a Mission (POM) curriculum in Hmong for parents who speak that language. She taught the same series last fall, after Chico Unified School District adopted the curriculum for parenting workshops.

Thao-Lor and other CUSD staffers who serve as parent-school liaisons—they’re called “targeted case managers”—work with parents who contend with much more than just television in raising their children. The case managers—there are nine positions in the district funded by state and federal grants—often find themselves performing social-worker functions as they try to support students, at times by helping parents connect with community resources to solve pressing problems, ranging from domestic violence to foreclosure threats.

Parents also face 21st-century parenting challenges. Their children may carry cell phones from which they can call friends, email photos, send text messages and access Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the entire Internet. Their children may struggle academically or face pressure to join gangs or cope with family dysfunction.

Thao-Lor is personally familiar with the financial and cultural challenges faced by Hmong families. The parents in many cases are illiterate, she said, and they have an average of six to eight children. The father is often the only wage-earner, while the mother stays home to tend the house and raise the children, who may range in age from elementary school to the college student.

“Their hands are too full,” she said of Hmong parents.

She and the district’s other workshop leaders believe the POM curriculum can help by providing strategies for building stronger parent-child bonds. The program sometimes challenges conventional wisdom by keeping the focus on the family, rather than shifting blame to the schools or culture or society. At workshops, participants are asked to look carefully at their parenting style.

CUSD’s family literacy coordinator, Shari Zeno, stumbled upon POM while conducting an Internet search a couple of years ago. Zeno was looking for a curriculum that could help parents in supporting their children academically and in keeping them away from gangs, drugs and alcohol. She liked what she saw in POM, and sensed that it would fit well with how the district uses its case managers.

When POM was adopted last spring, Chico Unified became the first school district to acquire it for internal use, said Richard Ramos, a Bakersfield author and speaker who wrote the curriculum, which is based on Ramos’ book Gang Prevention and Schools. Initially parents and teachers were the focus of the program. In Kern County, the school district has worked with Ramos to encourage its use by local organizations such as youth mentor groups and counselors.

The curriculum has also been used by community-based organizations in Florida, Texas and California, and in two Canadian provinces, Ramos added.

CUSD is also the first school district to present the material in Hmong, Ramos said. POM’s Parent Action Guide is published in both English and Spanish, but in Chico Thao-Lor and another case manager present the material out loud in their native language of Hmong.

And when Ramos spoke in Chico earlier this year, his presentation was translated into both Spanish and Hmong via closed-circuit television.

CUSD’s Zeno said that, in reviewing the program, she became convinced that it could have broad appeal. The school district was careful not to present the workshop series as a gang-prevention program, even though POM seems to have evolved, at least in part, as a response to gang issues. Session No. 3 in the workshop series is titled “Parental Authority and Gang Prevention.”

“I think what’s different about Richard’s program,” Zeno said, “is that it works from inside out. It’s about parents doing their own self-growth instead of just looking at what’s wrong with their child and the child’s behavior.

“I wanted to cast that big net,” Zeno said. “We all think we have our kids figured out, but at every turn they change.”

On a recent Tuesday night at Chico Junior High School, POM workshops were underway in both English and Spanish.

In the English-speakers workshop, a group of eight parents were asked to consider what they were doing well, a step toward encouraging them to view themselves as strong leaders at home and even as heroes to young children.

One woman said she was the mother of a 2-year-old with Down syndrome, and she carries a binder to visits with the pediatrician. “I’m an expert on her needs,” the mother said.

In the Spanish-speaking workshop, a group of 15 parents sat around a long table engaged in an animated discussion about the difference between discipline and punishment. They talked about family problems, offered each other suggestions, and sometimes joked and laughed. A father opened up about his effort to reach an emotionally distant teenager.

Martha Hansen-Newton, a case manager at Bidwell Junior, said that POM tells parents that while their children are young they have a window of opportunity to build trust and loyalty. After age 12, they face fierce outside competition for their children’s hearts and minds.

The program recommends the writing of a family mission statement, the passing down of family stories and history, and performing community service as a family. Too often in Latino families, Hansen-Newton said, parents don’t talk about where they came from and children don’t understand the sacrifices that were made on their behalf.

In a telephone interview, Ramos, the founder of the Latino Coalition for Faith & Community Leadership, said he wrote the curriculum to encourage parents to look at themselves and consider whether they’re “part of the problem.”

Ramos acknowledged that gangs are sown at least in part by poverty and racism. “Gangs are a symptom of larger social problems,” he said. “What we can do is prevent individual children from joining them.”

But Ramos said that parenting in general has become far more complex. “They say, ‘It takes a village to raise a child. It does not take a village—it takes parents to raise a child. That’s a good saying, but it was meant for a different time and a different culture.”