Union Tribune

October 14, 2002 

Parent centers await fate in federal budget
Offices help immigrants bridge cultural barriers

By DANA WILKIE 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

There was a time when Yee Khun's phone calls to Hoover High
School would dissolve into awkward and incomprehensible
conversations with school officials none of whom spoke the
language of her native Cambodia.

That was before Khun discovered the California Parent Center, a
place near San Diego State University, where Khun found a
translator to help her monitor her daughter's academic
progress.

But to pay for his No Child Left Behind education initiative,
President Bush has eliminated all federal funding for the nation's
66 parent centers places that help new immigrants overcome
the language and cultural barriers that keep them from
participating in their children's education. The Senate, which
wants to restore the funding, and the House, which does not, are
debating the budget.

The $40 million a year that comes from the U.S. Department of
Educat ion is virtually the only money on which some of these
centers including San Diego's rely.

"The rationale was that it was a low-priority program," said
Joanne Martin, program director for the California Parent
Center, which is at the June Burnett Institute for Children, Youth
and Families. "We are trying to find a way to keep ourselves
funded, but there's just no other funding that promotes parent
involvement the way this does."

Amy Call, a spokeswoman for Bush's Office of Management and
Budget, said states and school districts can offer similar services
on their own "to best address local needs."

"This (cut) was part of our initiative to consolidate duplicative
programs," Call said.

The No Child Left Behind Act, which Congress passed earlier this
year, requires public school accountability and testing
programs, allows parents to transfer children to
better-performing public or charter schools, gives school
districts more flexibility in using federal money and puts new
emphasis on reading. The act will cost taxpayers an estimated
$26.3 billion a year, a price tag being paid in part by
trimming Education Department programs.

Since it opened in 1999, California's center has been getting
$841,000 a year from the Education Department. Last year,
more than 20,000 people from across the state either phoned
the center's toll-free line, visited its Web site, got help from its
seven affiliates across the state or walked into its offices.

They found translators, toured school district offices, took
classes on how to help kids with math, got tips on applying to
college, learned about the PTA, and met parents who shared
their backgrounds.

Parents who speak Vietnamese, for instance, learn that on
certain mornings each week, they can phone the center (877)
9PARENT or (619) 594-3333 if they live in San Diego and reach
someone who speaks their language.

"Questions come up about all kinds of things," said Jeana
Preston, director of parent involvement for San Diego city
schools. "Parents want to learn English. Or they're having
difficulty with a child. Or they have a disagreement with the
school."

A year ago, Khun wanted to know whether her teen daughter,
Laura, was taking all the courses necessary to graduate from
Hoover High. Calls to the principal's office left her angry and
frustrated; she could not understand school representatives, nor
they her.

"I just wanted to get involved more with my children," said the
35-year-old Khun, who lives in Mid-City and is raising three
children herself all of them in different schools.

Another Cambodian parent told her about the California Parent
Center. There, Khun found not only a translator who
accompanied her to Hoover, but also classes in her native
Khmer that helped her overcome her timidity about school
officials and gave her a "Who's Who" of the school system.

Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, director of the Harvard Immigration
Project, said because immigrant parents often work several jobs,
don't speak English well and aren't educated themselves, they
sometimes avoid meeting their children's teachers.

"They dream of giving their children an education that they
could never get in their own country," Suarez-Orozco said. "But
they can't interrupt work in the middle of the day. They don't
have the resources to navigate this complicated maze called
'How do you get (your child) into . . . the Yales of the world?' And
so teachers . . . conclude that the parents don't care, and nothing
could be further from the truth."

Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, said some children will indeed be
left behind without parent centers to help them navigate the
school system.

"We know that student success is (related) to parent
involvement, but a lot of parents don't know how to be
involved," said Filner, who is working with Rep. Susan Davis,
D-San Diego, to keep parent-center money in the budget. "They
have to learn some elementary computer stuff so they're not
intimidated by it. They need to learn that their language barrier
doesn't mean they're stupid or should be ignored."

The House version of the budget does not include the
parent-center funding. The Senate version restores it. The two
chambers must reconcile that difference, but because budget
matters are tied up in Congress and the new fiscal year began
Oct. 1 those who run the nation's parent centers aren't certain
what will happen to the money.

"Parent involvement is one of (Education) Secretary (Roderick)
Paige's four pillars for children to be successful in school," said
Paula Goldberg, executive director of the Parent Advocacy
Coalition for Educational Rights, a nonprofit group encouraging
parents to participate in their children's schools. "You can't have
one of those pillars missing."