Mentor program puts Decatur parents into classrooms
By VALERIE WELLS
Decatur Herald & Review
AP Member Exchange
DECATUR, Ill. — Otiyuna Franklin’s experiences as a parent mentor at French Academy have opened her eyes to a career path. She’s working toward becoming a teaching assistant.
“My interest in doing this is because when I was growing up, I didn’t have anybody to push me or help me,” said Franklin, mother of Amir, a first-grader.
Franklin said it’s important for students in kindergarten through third grade to have instilled in their minds the rhythm of math and reading. If that’s done within the first years of school, “they’re going to be, ‘Let me get my work done and go on about my business and then I can have play time,'” she said.
The statewide Parent Mentor Program, which is administered locally by the Decatur Family YMCA, has established two pilot sites in Decatur — French Academy and South Shores School. With the help of parent liaisons at the buildings, Jacqui Hupp, youth development director at the Decatur Family YMCA, and JoDee Crocker, a French Academy parent, recruited parents to agree to come to the school two hours daily to work with the children directly and assist teachers.
The program began in Chicago in 1995 and has grown to 650 classrooms, including Decatur, which is the first community its size to participate. East St. Louis has a similar program, but no other downstate districts, as yet, have been enrolled. If Decatur’s grant is renewed for next year, the program could expand to other schools. The state Legislature allocated $2 million for the program in 2018 through the Illinois State Board of Education.
“The parents are actually working with the teachers on the lessons, hands-on,” Hupp said. “They’re not stapling papers or running back and forth to the bathroom. They’re doing the work and engaging with the kids.”
If the parents complete the training they undergo prior to the program plus 100 hours in the classroom with children, they will receive a $500 stipend. The parents must have a child at the school where they work, but they cannot be in their own child’s classroom.
The process to be accepted is stringent. Parents must pass a tuberculosis test, provide proof of income and a photo identification, participate in all the training sessions — which include weekly workshops in addition to the initial training — and sign an agreement that they will fulfill all the requirements of the program.
“It’s bridging the gap between school and home,” Crocker said. “The teachers understand where the parents are coming from, and the parents understand the school better.”
She said some parents are intimidated about coming to the school for parent-teacher meetings or to volunteer, and the parent mentor program is one way to help them feel comfortable, which is good for their kids, too.
Franklin said her son loves having her in the building, and when he sees her in the hallway, he has to tell her everything he’s been doing all day.
The Crockers have three children at French — Noah, in sixth grade; Kallissa in fourth; and Malachi, a kindergartner. Not only does Crocker help run the program, her husband, Jonathan, is one of the parent mentors.
“I just enjoy being able to help the kids and see them grow and change,” Jonathan Crocker said. “(My role) is to assist the kids with the learning process, do some one-on-one with them so I can help them. We’ll go outside (the classroom) and go through so they’re working one-on-one and not in the big group.”
He said he learned in the training how to ask leading questions to help the child grasp concepts without giving the child the answers. The point is to help children learn to find the answers themselves.
Hupp visits Chicago regularly, where the program started, to get further training, and the more she learns, the more impressed with it she is, she said.
“Of course, it’s all about funding, too,” she said. “They told us to talk to our legislators if we want to expand this beyond the two schools (in Decatur).”