For parents like Alba Quinones, the education of their children is a communal effort.
"It's important to so many people to have a voice for the school," said Quinones, standing outside the auditorium at Fairfax High School and welcoming parents to La Voz Hispana's monthly meeting Wednesday, Feb. 22. Quinones joined the organization for Hispanic parents upon its formation in September, the same time her son started 10th grade at Fairfax. Quinones wanted her son to get as much out of his high school experience as possible.
"It was the first year here for him," said Quinones, a native of Bolivia. "I'd like to try and help my people, Hispanic people."
Voz Hispana is a concerted effort to involve as many parents of Hispanic background as possible, said Carole Kihm, director of student services at the school. Fairfax High School offers monthly meetings, or "parent schools" for the members of Voz Hispana, where parents can receive information about different aspects of their child's education.
"Thirteen percent of our population is Hispanic, so we've always had a parent liaison for the Spanish-speaking community," said Kihm. "This is the first year we've had this much activity."
In September's session, Principal Scott Brabrand, liaison Ana Bauserman, and Kihm outlined the plan for the year and discussed what the Hispanic community needed from the school. Other topics have included introducing parents to school administration, familiarizing them with curriculum and registration, and encouraging their children to take AP and Honors courses.
"There's so much information out there," said Kihm. "Parents get bombarded with information, and I'm not sure it all sinks in."
"It's about building an organization that supports kids and has parents working with teachers, assistant principals and counselors to make sure every kid is successful," said Brabrand. Bauserman was the catalyst for La Voz Hispana, he said, coordinating the program and encouraging parents to come to the meetings.
"We think that the Hispanic community has been isolated from information resources and help because of language barriers, cultural barriers, poverty and immigration barriers," said Bauserman.
LANGUAGE BARRIERS are a predominant factor preventing many parents from seeking help in figuring out the school system, said Quinones. Some parents also feel apprehensive about coming to meetings or signing things because of their legal status, but Voz Hispana meetings provide a safe place for them to come together.
"In this group, people try to help and let everybody know what [your rights are]," said Quinones.
"Bringing the Hispanic community into the school and unifying it, we would be able to solve a lot of problems," said Bauserman.
The program has received an overwhelmingly positive response from parents, said Bauserman. The average monthly meeting draws around 120 parents.
"This is one of the goals, to strengthen and integrate the Hispanic community," said Bauserman.
The response shows that parents want to be involved in their children's education, said Kihm. "[The parents] have gotten really involved in the whole fabric of the school," she said. "It's wonderful."
The enthusiasm goes both ways, said Quinones. Students actively encourage their parents to come to the meetings, she said, because they appreciate their parents' involvement in their educational lives.
"When parents say 'How is everything in school,' the students feel good," she said. "They realize, 'Oh, Dad cares about my school.'"
Through La Voz Hispana, parents often become further involved in school, with many Hispanic parents joining the PTSA as a result, she said.
AROUND 130 PARENTS came to Wednesday night's presentation, which focused on gang prevention. Juan Pacheco of gang-prevention organization Barrios Unidos spoke to parents about how best to keep their children from gang activity. Pacheco, an ex-gang member, said that involvement in a child's life is one of the best methods of gang prevention.
"For your kids, you have to be role models, positive role models," said Pacheco through Loida Gibbs of the Fairfax County Volunteer Interpretation Program, who translated his Spanish for the English speakers of the audience. During his years in a gang, he was jailed five times and experienced the deaths of several close friends. But at that time, he said,
he believed that money and gang protection were absolutes in life.
"Money comes and goes, but a parent's love is unconditional," said Pacheco.
Young people join gangs because of a void in their lives, said Pacheco, and it is the duty of parents, community members and schools to fill that void.
"Imagine what decisions youth would be taking because they're not being offered something other than a gang," he said. The intervention of several families through Barrios Unidos helped Pacheco leave the gang and begin a college education. He now studies chemistry at George Mason University.
"Bring [children] to school, go to clubs, spend time with them," said parent Gilda Guzman through translator Gibbs. "Don’t wait for the report cards."
When children feel as if they have no roots or do not feel they belong to a community, said Bauserman, they become attracted to the idea of being in a gang.
"We really need to wake up, and tell parents to wake up," she said. Even if parents work long hours, they can still find ways to be involved in their children's lives.
"We are the ones who can give them love," said Guzman. "We are the ones who can help them with the future."