Classes teach how to parent in America

Feb. 08, 2014 @ 05:01 AM

There are about 2,000 parents of students in Lee County Schools who don't speak English at home. It's Yolanda Gierbolini's job to reach out to them, offering classes on discipline, volunteering, helping their children become more literate and other topics.

Once this semester is over, Gierbolini, a former Teacher of the Year at Deep River Elementary School, will have helped parents at every single local school. The classes are in Spanish because, she said, that's the language 98 percent of the parents speak. But they're not sitting down to learn English — there are classes at Central Carolina Community College for that, she said — rather, they're learning how to be a parent in America.

"It's telling them how to become involved, saying, 'Just because you don't speak English doesn't mean you can't be involved in your child's education,'" said Gierbolini, who moved here from Puerto Rico about nine years ago and taught English as a second language class before taking her current job as a parent liaison.

Over the past two years, she said, she has met with between 60 and 100 parents each semester. They gather in small groups most weekends, and the whole group comes together every two or three months. Once this semester is over and Gierbolini has worked with parents at all the schools on the basics, she said, she wants to continue in the future with more in-depth classes.

Beatriz Alvarez, who moved to the U.S. from Colombia 15 years ago and has been in North Carolina about six years, has two children at B.T. Bullock Elementary School. Speaking nearly fluent English with the occasional Spanish phrase thrown in, she said the classes changed her approach to parenting so drastically that her kids noticed and would tease her when she tried to discipline them at first, saying she must have learned it in class.

Alvarez said it's coming more naturally to her as time goes on. And Pilar Bustamante, who has two children at Greenwood Elementary School, agreed. Bustamante, who moved here from Mexico 13 years ago, understands English but was more comfortable responding in Spanish, so Gierbolini translated for her.

"I've been sharing with parents and friends things I've learned in the program," Bustamante said. "And we found we were doing things from the class and didn't even realize it."

In addition to teaching parents how to be better at disciplining their children and helping them read and do other work at home, she also lets parents suggest topics they want to learn about. The most frequently requested subjects? How to volunteer at school and how to spot signs of possible gang membership.

Alvarez said many of her friends who don't speak English well (or at all) would still like to be involved in their children's school, but they don't know how to start. She noted that at Bullock and other schools, many of the Hispanic students separate themselves from the rest of their classmates, likely feeling scared or alienated.

Gierbolini encourages parents to become involved, and she tells people in the classes to let others know they can email her or other school employees in Spanish about any topic, and the emails will be translated and sent to the right people.

She said the effort will hopefully lead to Spanish-speaking parents volunteering and that their children will then do better socially and academically — especially in elementary school, when they're still learning English and could benefit from seeing a familiar face or hearing a familiar language.

"The little ones get anxiety at school because they say, 'Ah, no one here speaks Spanish,'" Gierbolini said.

She's also thinking about starting partnerships with other groups — particularly the Sanford Police Department — to give parents help figuring out if their child is in a gang, or tips on how to prevent that from happening in the first place. She also plans to address bullying.

But whether it's literacy or gang prevention, Gierbolini said, everything she does comes down to encouraging parents to be more involved with their children, both at home and at school. It will help the Hispanic community succeed and hopefully, she said, their increased presence and involvement will erase stereotypes and lead to greater acceptance of non-English speakers.

"I do want people to know we care about out kids, and we are getting involved," she said. "Just because we have the obstacle of language doesn't mean we aren't involved or don't care."