Ray Huard ….Jessica Gutierrez has helped parents understand the online computer programs their children use to do homework at Casita Center for Technology, Science & Math.
She’s helped some fill out job applications and apply for food stamps. She helped one mother learn how to use Microsoft Word, a word processing computer program the mother needed for her job and to help her child with homework. Sometimes, she helps get food for families in need.
And every morning and afternoon, she’s in the school parking lot, greeting parents and students as they arrive and leave – a friendly face they know they can trust.
“It’s little things, but they make such a huge impact at the end of the day,” said Gutierrez, one of 17 community liaisons Vista Unified School District has added over the past two years.
More will be added next year so that nearly every school in the district will have its own liaison, said Jacqueline “Kiki” Bispo, Vista Unified’s Family Engagement Lead.
A few of the smaller schools, like Major General Raymond Murray High School and Alta Vista High School, will share a liaison, Bispo said.
The idea of adding school liaisons came from a series of community forums in which parents said they wanted to be more engaged with the schools and school officials were looking for ways to better connect with the community, Bispo said.
“There’s so many parents that want to be involved, that want to help and they just don’t know where to start,” said Patricia Landeros, liaison at Temple Heights Elementary School. “Our parents want to be there. It’s just making that first connection, building that trust.”
That’s where the community liaisons come in.
“Essentially, they serve as the intermediary between schools, community and family, bridging any divides that may have existed,” Bispo said.
There’s no real job description for the liaisons, and the work varies from school to school, but a constant is to be the first and last person students and parents see during the school day.
“Every morning at drop off, every afternoon at pickup, the liaisons are present in the parking lot to say, ‘Hi, I’m the liaison. I’m here to meet your needs,’” Bispo said.
The liaisons often work evenings and make home visits to meet with parents.
The hope is that the liaisons will develop an environment “where parents feel comfortable and safe and even excited to come to a school and talk with somebody,” Bispo said.
At Grapevine Elementary School, Bispo said that liaison Susy Aguirre is helping one mother learn how to read and write.
“I saw the parent working on her alphabet – capital A, lower case a – she was just practicing the writing and her goal is by the time her child leaves Grapevine in the fifth grade, the parent will have advanced beyond her child,” Bispo said. “That’s just a beautiful goal and a perfect example of how much parents care, how much they want to learn, what they want for their children.”
To become a liaison, someone must have a high school diploma and be able to read, speak and write Spanish well enough to translate documents from English to Spanish and act as an interpreter. They also must pass a rigorous Spanish language test.
“Not a lot of our teachers speak Spanish, so that was a way a lot of parents gravitated toward me. They’d say, ‘Wow, I have someone who can speak my language and be the interpreter or whatever,” said Susana Torrico, community liaison at Maryland Elementary School.
By talking with several parents, Torrico learned that they wanted homework help for their children before school on Mondays when classes don’t start until 10 a.m. at Maryland.
As a result, the school hired a teacher’s aide to work with the children before school starts on Mondays.
“Now, the parents feel heard, the parents feel confident and the students get the help they need,” Torrico said.
At Olive Elementary School, liaison Jorge Garcia said one of the biggest challenges for parents was learning how to use computers to understand what their children were doing in school and to communicate with teachers.
“There was one parent who didn’t even know how to turn a computer on, which is fine. That’s what we’re there for,” Garcia said. “Every week, I hold a tech workshop where parents are welcome to come and I work with them to teach them how to use a computer. I start with the basics and move on to email.”
Garcia also worked with Vista Community Clinic to organize workshops at the school on child development.
Madison Middle School liaison Vivian Boring said she’s often called upon to help students and their parents make the transition from elementary school, where students have several teachers instead of one, and where they track their grades and homework assignments through online computer programs.
“Some parents don’t know, when their kids are on computers, if they’re playing games or actually doing their homework and we want to be able to help the parents distinguish so they can absolutely support their kids,” Boring said.
Boring also organized study skills workshops so parents can help their children develop study habits that will carry them through high school.
A middle school student “needs to learn how to study differently, study smarter, get a new routine after he goes home,” Boring said. “He can’t just go home and play.”
In addition to the work they do in the schools, the liaisons often work with a number of social service agencies and other organizations on a variety of projects and in getting help for families in need.
“At the end of the day, the liaisons end up dealing with every aspect of life in education, good, bad and difficult,” Bispo said. “We’re trying to become experts in everything, or at least a little bit of everything so that we know how to refer and support our parents and families.”