BY ERIN GRACE
OMAHA WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
Ismelda Montes is so eager to learn English that sometimes, when she's cleaning offices at night, she pauses to look at posters, to look at words.
Words she can't read yet. Words she can't understand yet. Words she asks about at a unique language class that is part of a broader program aimed at helping non-English-speaking parents of young children.
Montes and her husband, Jesus Canales, plus their three children, ages S, 4 and 2, are among the 40 families participating in a family literacy program the Learning Community launched this year.
The program is aimed at non-English-speaking parents of kindergarten-age children at five South Omaha elementary schools: Gomez-Heritage, Indian Hill, Spring Lake, Ashland Park-Robbins and Castelar. Each week, participants get about eight hours of English, computer and parenting instruction, with free child care provided. They also are assigned bilingual parent educators who visit their homes every few weeks. These "family navigators" help parents sort through child-rearing challenges, help families problem-solve and serve as cultural bridges, introducing practices such as keeping a calendar or reading to young children.
"The main goal is to have these families have their kids be successful in school," said Anne O'Hara, program director. About 40 families are involved, and the Learning Community aims to double that number by the end of the year and bring more schools on board.
The Learning Community is a cooperative created by state law to even out school funding among the metropolitan area's 11 school districts and offer poor students and their fami lies more opportunities.
The family literacy program, which has a $500,000 budget, is intended to boost achievement for kindergartners and their younger siblings by getting their parents more involved in school. It's also meant to shrink an achievement gap that chil dren in poverty face, particu larly those coming from non English-speaking homes with parents of limited formal edu cation.
Yesenia Valenzuela is one of the family navigators and has been working with the Canales Montes family since April.
Since then, Montes has been a willing and diligent student, and she is making good progress. The 29-year-old from Mexico has a seventh-grade education and wants more for Angel, S, Arianna, 4, and Jesus, a bright eyed 2-year-old. She attends English classes twice a week and a three-hour parenting class every other week at the Learning Com munity Center of South Oma ha, housed in the Juan Diego buildings south of 31st and Q Streets. With her two older children at school (Arianna attends a preschool at Gomez Heritage), Montes brings Jesus to the Learning Community center, where others care for him while she learns.
On a recent day, Montes was among nine students in class. When asked how many had preschool-age children, seven hands shot up. When asked how many of the students couldn't be there without the free child
care, seven hands again were raised.
A bilingual teacher instructs in English but will take questions in Spanish. She uses vocal inflection and sign language to help communicate meaning. Posters in English and Spanish show parents how to better
communicate with teachers - by writing a thank-you note, for example-and with children by writing daily "love" notes.
Montes' classmates were enthusiastic about the opportunity. Speaking in Spanish trans lated by teacher Sara Goodell, mothers said they want a better life for their children and bet ter job opportunities for themselves.
One father said he's learning how to be a better parent, how not "to yell all the time."
A mother said when the school sends books home to read, "I understand it a lot bet ter and I can read them."
Participants also get lessons in Boys Town's Common Sense Parenting program, which helps parents better manage child behavior with issues like communication, self-control and discipline. The home visits help reinforce this.
The Canales-Montes family live in a tidy one-bedroom house, with a set of bunk beds in what would be the dining room. Valenzuela, the family naviga tor, has helped mom and dad institute morning and evening routines to smooth the getting to-school, getting-to-bed flow.
This has cut down on sibling squabbles and maximized the little time they all have togeth er, given dad's daytime con struction job and mom's night work. She also emphasized the importance of relaxing family time. After church one Sunday the family sat down to play a game. Montes later told Valen zuela she was so surprised at how well-behaved the children were and how nice it was to be together.
Montes is driven by what the future could hold.
"I want for my babies to go to the university," she said. "I want them to learn more than I am learning."
Learning Community Family Liaisons help kids get back on track in elementary school. See how family support makes a difference and browse other videos. MORE