Ten years ago, a teacher at Hoover Elementary School in Redwood City noticed that many of her students weren't completing their homework. It wasn't an issue of motivation; the students were always excited to go home and get busy with their assignments. However, week after week, those same excited students would return to school the next morning with unfinished work.
The teacher, Ninfa Zuno, didn't understand. What else could she do to support these students? How could she motivate them to complete their work? And then she realized something; it wasn't the students who needed support, it was the parents.
In 2005-06, Hoover's student population was almost 95% Hispanic or Latino. Many of the parents spoke limited English or worked multiple jobs and as a result were struggling to support their students academically. But Mrs. Zuno knew that students with well-informed, engaged parents were more likely to succeed, regardless of their parent's background or ZIP code. She and her husband, Secondino, a volunteer math teacher at Hoover, decided to start offering academic support classes to the parents of their students. Word quickly spread, and the small program blossomed into "Familias Unidas," or "Families United Through Literacy," which graduated its 500th family in July 2015.
The program's goal is simple: empower parents to become involved in their child's education. The Zunos do this through hands-on activities that support math, language, social studies, science, and technology. Parents learn literacy strategies and are able to do the same types of research and projects that students are doing in the classroom. They also receive a binder full of bilingual resources including teaching strategies, basic subject-specific concepts, and information about the California state standards.
But Familias Unidas teaches parents more than just hard skills. According to Mr. Zuno, parents who participated in the program also got more involved in their communities: "They were keeping their distance, which is a sign of respect," he said. "But it was misunderstood and seen as disinterest." When asked about the program, one parent said it convinced her to start volunteering at Hoover because Mr. and Mrs. Zuno gave her the confidence to feel helpful at school. Another said the program made it easier for her to communicate with the teachers and made her feel more comfortable asking how her kids are doing in school.
The teachers and administrators can see a difference, too. Caitlin McManus, a teacher at Hoover, has noticed a shift in her conversations with parents. "The parents are much more engaged during conferences," she said. "They ask inquisitive questions about their child's reading levels. They're less intimidated and more empowered. It's wonderful." And Principal Amanda Rothengast said the support of programs like Familias Unidas has caused English learner achievement to soar. At Hoover, second language learners are learning English at rates higher than the state average—something everyone at the school is proud of.
Thanks to support from organizations such as the Sobrato Foundation, the Redwood City Public Library, and the school district, Familias Unidas has expanded into other Redwood City schools. The Zunos are also working on additional curricula and training sessions for teachers in other districts who are interested in starting their own programs. And even though the program focuses on literacy, Ninfa and Secondino hope they are teaching the parents something much more important: that their community believes in them.