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San Bernardino school's program urges parents to aim children for college

10:00 PM PDT on Sunday, August 17, 2008 - By MELANIE C. JOHNSON (The Press-Enterprise)

MUSCOY - School is in session, and it's not just children who are attending classes. At Vermont Elementary School, it's also learning time for parents.

Principal Elizabeth Atkinson recently kicked off a pilot program called Vermont Parent University.

The program mimics college, with parents choosing courses out of a catalog and registering for classes on topics ranging from helping a child with homework to aiding young children in the development of motor skills.

Atkinson said barriers to attending have been removed. The program is free and food and child care are provided. Interpretation is provided for Spanish-speaking parents. About 85 percent of the students are English learners, she said.

Seventy-one parents signed up for the first block of six classes that are offered on the first Thursday of the month through May.

Atkinson said she came up with the program as a way to get parents in the Muscoy community talking to their children about college at an early age. At a school where more than 90 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch, college could make the difference, she said.

"Having a conversation with kids about going to college in high school is a little too late," she said. "In poorer communities, college isn't talked about and it isn't accessible. Well, why not?"

The classes are not lecture style, she said. Discussions flow back and forth and parents do small-group and hands-on activities.

During the first day on a recent afternoon at the school, parents looked up their classrooms on an oversize ledger and headed to class.

Outside the rooms, college banners decorated the doors, and blue caps and gowns were mounted on the walls. It's a subtle message parents get when they enter the room, Atkinson said. The teachers also wear their college shirts certain days of the week to communicate the importance of college to their students.

During a class on motor skills, parents learned how to make their own version of Play-Doh, something their children can use to exercise their hands.

In the health and nutrition course, school nurse Glecy Villalobos teased parents about consuming too much bread and tortillas while going over the food groups.

William Evans, the school counselor and a trained psychologist, encouraged parents to fill out an apperception test with their children to help them better understand them as people during a class on positive behavior in the classroom.

Joey Anchondo / The Press-Enterprise

Nurse Glecy Villalobos teaches a nutrition class for parents at Vermont Elementary School in San Bernardino.

"If you understand what they like and don't like, it will give you extra insight," he said to the group, sharing stories of his own struggles as a parent.

After class, Evans said parents were engaged and motivated.

"It's going to give the parents skills they might not necessarily have," he said. "As a parent myself, there is no handbook on how to be a parent."

Kindergarten teacher Maria Martinez said the parents are modeling behavior.

"Parents get to see what they're trying to get their kids to do," said the Cal State San Bernardino graduate. "Modeling college provides the idea of what higher education is."

Parents agreed that setting an example for their children was important.

Raquel Vallarta, 39, participated on the parent committee that helped get the word out to the community about the program.

Through Atkinson as interpreter, Vallarta said she is involved in her children's education. Her son David is a second-grader at Vermont Elementary School.

"A lot of times, if parents didn't get an education, they don't promote it," she said. "It's very important that they have the mentality that their children be educated."

Luz Suarez, also on the parent committee, took the positive behavior class while her husband, Jose, attended a course on grade-level state standards. The couple has two children at Vermont, fourth-grader Andrea and second-grader Jose Angel.

Luz Suarez, 36, said through a translator that Vermont Parent University will get parents involved at the school.

"It's a better way to help their children, to work together and to be involved in what their children do," she said. "It's to help motivate them."

Jose Suarez, 36, said through a translator that talking about college with children makes a difference in their futures.

"It's important to have that mentality at this age," he said. "It's to have a specific goal in mind, to have a path."

Reach Melanie C. Johnson at 909-806-3069 or

At Vermont Elementary School in Muscoy, parents can participate in the new Vermont Parent University program, designed to promote college and to offer moms and dads tools to help their children succeed academically.

Enrollment: 740
English learners: 481
Socioeconomically disadvantaged students: 93 percent
API Score 2007: 633

Source: California Department of Education and San Bernardino City Unified School District

Posted on July, 17th 2008

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