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South Lakes Reaches Out

New grants to help school build 'bridge' to international parents.

As a school counselor at South Lakes High School, Cindy Morris knows parental involvement can mean the difference between success and failure, advancement and regression. And as a former ESOL counselor, Morris knows, first hand, the difficulties faced by families whose first, and sometimes second, language is not English.

Now with the help of a $3,000 MetLife Foundation grant, South Lakes is better prepared to reach out to parents of international and ESOL students this fall, its principal Realista "Rely" Rodriguez said.

South Lakes was one of 25 recipients nationwide to receive the "Bridge Builders" grant. Awarded by the National Association of Secondary School Principals to schools serving large numbers of low income and minority students, the grant will help to underwrite and complement many existing outreach programs already in place at South Lakes, Rodriguez said. "It’s obviously an honor to receive this grant. We already had many of these ideas floating around, we just needed to put it all together and refined," Rodriguez added. "Now we know where we have to spend the money."

The school, known for its diverse student body — only 50 percent of the population is white — will use the cash award to reach out to families from other countries, working with parents to help them understand school information and practices and referring them to outside resources to help ensure their children’s success in school.

"The more parents can understand the schooling process and the more they know about what’s going on in their child’s lives and their learning, the more effective they can be in monitoring their homework," Morris said. "And the more effective they are in that, the more effective their student will be in school, in learning and in life."

The grant was born out of a MetLife survey of students and teachers in 2002 that found that teachers have very little understanding of their students’ neighborhoods and communities. The grant makers believe that an increased awareness would help teachers reach their students, especially ESOL, minority and low-income students, more effectively.

RODRIGUEZ HAS PUT together a South Lakes Bridge Builders team, made up of teachers, parents, staff and administrators, to hold special events at the school. In addition, as part of the grant, staff members will hold meetings at three neighborhood apartment complexes in and around Reston, the principal said. The meetings and home visits will allow team members to brief parents on everything from school rules and extracurricular activities to dress codes and scholarship opportunities. The informal meet-and-greets will allow parents unaccustomed to regular school functions or meetings to privately meet with a member of Rodriguez’s staff, she said. The apartment visits will supplement the ongoing monthly meetings of the International parent meetings. "Because of their language or cultural differences, some of these parents don’t realize what options are open to their children," the principal said.

Last spring, Rodriguez and members of her staff, along with parental liaisons, held a similar meeting at the Cedar Ridge Apartments in Reston. While about five families showed up to the event, Rodriguez said it was a success. The principal said she was impressed with the level of interest that the parents at the meeting showed in their children’s achievement. "They were delighted we came," Rodriguez said. "And I know they learned a lot."

One of the things team members stressed was the importance of regular attendance. Rodriguez said that many non-English speaking parents spoke about the difficulty and frustration of writing an excused absence letter for their sick child. "We put together a form in Spanish that they can fill out and send in," she said. "Now their absences aren’t all unexcused."

At a recent meeting of the team, Morris stressed the importance of building those "bridges," one family at a time. "It is vital that these parents develop the skills that will teach them how to be an advocate for their children."

During the same meeting Friday afternoon, Rodriguez reiterated the importance of parental involvement. Often times parents will come to school "yelling and ranting" about something involving their child. While acknowledging that it is not always easy to hear criticism, Rodriguez said it is actually a good sign. "Just be thankful that they are here," she said. "It shows that they have taken an interest in their child’s welfare and education."

IN HER GRANT PROPOSAL, Rodriguez highlighted the virtues inherent in the diversity of the school she has guided for the last five years. "[South Lakes] thrives on the strong support of its community of diverse families, business corporations, professional organizations and service agencies," Rodriguez wrote.

In the last few years, South Lakes has stressed the importance of reaching out to international and ESOL families, but this grant will help focus that goal. Integrating the international parents into the larger PTSA umbrella has been a bigger challenge, the principal conceded. "The integration is tough because you are really reaching out to a diverse group of people and when you have a diverse group of people, you have diverse interests, diverse perceptions, diverse priorities," she said. "We are doing our very best to have topics that will address as many interests as possible."

Rodriguez also pushed her team to initiate home visits to ESOL or international students as a way of reaching out towards a sometimes-neglected community. Last year, Rodriguez said she went to a student’s home at 5:15 a.m. because her mother had to be on a bus by 6 a.m. "You have to go that extra mile," she said. "Nobody is tapping these kids to be leaders or to join clubs."

John Coleman, a member of the South Lakes security team, is liaison to the school's Latino Club. At Friday’s meeting, he said that home visits are a valuable tool in reaching hard-to-reach parents. "Meeting them at their home really takes away the fear from a lot of these parents," he said.

Like her boss, Morris was hopeful that the MetLife grant would help bring more parents into the greater South Lakes fold. "In the past, we seem to have been effective in bringing these parents from different cultural groups into the school," Morris said. "We have this international parent’s group that has met consistently for the last few years and they really enjoy it and they come, but it is just tough to find a place, time and venue where all of our parent groups can come together."

Morris said that another grant, this one sponsored by the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, promised to increase the participation of diverse families in PTSA activities at South Lakes. The Reston high school was one of only three schools in the county to be awarded the $1,000 grant. "It has always been our goal to integrate all of our programs together," Morris said. "That’s what the hope of the Fairfax County PTSA grant is for. Both of these grants will hopefully increase the involvement of the international parents into the mainstream parent organization."

Ridge Loux, president of the school’s PTSA, applauded South Lakes’ continued effort to integrate the many groups of parents and students. "Sometimes, it’s as if we are almost Balkanized here," he said. "We definitely need to bring these disparate groups together."

With the grant in place, South Lakes is planning a series of speakers, aimed at ESOL parents and students, addressing the issues of school attendance, adolescent development and other issues of interest to immigrant students. The speakers would provide ESOL parents with the knowledge and skills needed to deal with concerns and needs specific to the immigrant adolescent, Rodriguez said.