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Helping Minority Children Academically

Leading a workshop on coaching children to higher academic performance, Johnny Nelson gave some valuable advice Saturday morning to a classroom of minority parents.

"Help them with their homework, but do it with as much love and affection as possible," he said. "Parents should be parents — providing their children with firm coaching and helping them with skills — but doing it with encouragement, too."

Nelson, president of the Chantilly Pyramid Minority Student Achievement Committee (CPMSAC), was participating in a parent-empowerment conference at Chantilly High. Sponsored by his group and by the Parent Minority Advisory Committee (PMAC) of Bull Run Elementary's PTA, its goal was to narrow the gap in minority student achievement.

"[CPMSAC founders] Johnny and Shirley Nelson are tireless," said parent Darwin Tolbert of Chantilly's Sutton Oaks community. "And the conference shows the schools and community the commitment to excellence that minorities do have."

However, much of the knowledge presented was useful to all parents — not just minorities. Workshops were also offered on communication and advocacy; early childhood/school readiness; connecting to support resources; and GT programs. There was also a panel discussion on the challenges and successes of helping children achieve.

In Nelson's workshop, he gave parents a detailed handout on homework and study skills and discussed each point with them. He said many children experience frustration and failure in school, not because they lack ability, but because they don't have adequate study skills.

"Good study habits foster feelings of competence and help children develop positive attitudes and realize that they can control how well they do in school and in life," said Nelson. "They lay the groundwork for successful work habits as an adult."

He noted that elementary-school parents usually help their children more than parents of adolescents. But he said children need parental support and encouragement throughout high school. "Be available to provide non-critical assistance," said Nelson. "Don't be too busy — take time to help your children. And have tutors in mind for courses you don't know about."

He said children should choose when, where and how to complete their homework. "If they want to sit at the kitchen table or have loud music on, it's OK," said Nelson. "But if this doesn't work, you have to give them tough love and make them do their homework. Make homework completion a high priority so it's a more positive experience for your kids."

He also advised parents to have on hand the supplies and equipment their children will need — books, paper, notebooks, scissors, pens, etc. And he said children should take notes and make vocabulary cards while they read, so they're actively learning.

"If you say, 'My kid is smart, but is making 'D's and 'F's,' listen to them and know their styles of learning," said Nelson. "Some learn better by hands-on and some, by using computers. And use homework completion to teach organizational skills. Children should know what their assignments are and keep notebooks about them."

Nelson said both parents and children should track the child's progress, improvement and areas of difficulty. "Reduce the child's freedom until grades improve and the teacher indicates the problem is solved," he said. But don't forget to "reward your child for good grades and for improving grades."

He also presented handouts on social issues and peer pressure, adding, "If you take advantage of all this information, you will empower yourself as better parents."

Ivette Colon, a parenting instructor with the Center for Promoting Family Learning and Involvement, in Fairfax, addressed the class, too. She teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and encouraged parents to have their children learn more than one language: "It's a global society, and it will open more doors for them."

She said it's vital for parents — especially those of bilingual students — to know if their children are reading at grade level. If not, they need resources at home to help them. "Picture dictionaries are good," said Colon. "The child may not be able to read the word, but seeing the picture might help him make that connection."

Bilingual students should also have bilingual books and periodicals at home. "It'll help them learn English easier," she said, adding that her center has such resources available. Said Colon: "Make sure the child reads different types of materials, such as magazines and newspapers, and sees you doing the same."

She said parent liaisons help minority parents understand how the U.S. education system works. "In some countries, parents aren't encouraged to get involved in schools," she said. "But here they are; everyone is encouraged to [participate] in their children's education."

Colon presented a list of resources, including her center, 703-277-2626; the U.S. Department of Education publications center, 1-800-872-5327 and the National Education Association, 202-822-7155.

Afterward, parents talked about that workshop and the conference as a whole. Pleasant Valley's Pamela Downer has an eighth-grade son at Stone Middle; he attends Chantilly High's STEP program, Saturday mornings, for schoolwork help.

She came to the conference because "I thought it would be good for me to know [about] study skills and what resources they have for minorities," she explained. She also wanted to learn what things her son would face in high school so she'd be prepared.

Downer said Nelson's class was well done and the handouts were excellent. She said the conference was needed and she'd like to see another one split between elementary parents and middle- and high-school parents.

Parent Darwin Tolbert also attended Saturday because of his children — a Chantilly High sophomore and a Willow Springs Elementary sixth-grader. He takes their education seriously and wanted to find "additional strategies to help in their successful academic careers."

He learned he's not alone in some parental challenges. He said communication is the biggest one and parents sometimes forget it works both ways. So Tolbert plans to listen to his children more effectively. He enjoyed the workshop and appreciated the homework advice.

He said the conference was important because "even more over-arching than the child's success is the community's success, and coming here — seeing other children and adults in the same situation — helps build the bond." Tolbert said the goal is producing fruitful and productive citizens and the conference gave minority parents an opportunity to socialize with each other while learning how to improve their children's education.

For example, in the panel discussion, Malikah Reed shared some of the challenges she faces as a single parent and a SAC teacher. "My strategy is to be involved with the students and with my children's activities," she said. "I tell parents, 'If your child plays football, go to his games.'"

Another mother learned ways of motivating her child to do better on tests. Equally important, she realized his ability to speak two languages is an asset. Also present Saturday were Spanish-language interpreters Clarissa Rogers and Marlene Molina who deal with the Hispanic community via the county school system.

They said some teachers encourage parents to speak their native language at home because they realize that, otherwise, these parents wouldn't be able to help their children with their homework. Furthermore, said Rogers, "If children master their native language, they'll learn English easier."

Sometimes, she said, teachers have to call and encourage such parents to get involved in school because "they feel overwhelmed and intimidated and think that everything will be in English and they won't understand." And Molina noted that parents can request that an interpreter be present during their meetings with teachers.

Overall, said Bull Run PMAC co-chair Benny James, those leading Saturday's conference were excellently prepared and the nearly 90 parents attending were enthusiastic. Noting that individual PTAs could hold similar workshops in their schools, he said he was encouraged by the conference and "mark[s] it a success."