The real work begins at Mort's community school
After months of ceremony, the first official work of the Mort Elementary Community School began with 16 mothers telling one another, "Good evening, everybody, my name is ...."
Wednesday's session, conducted entirely in Spanish, was Mort's first Engaged Parents class, led by instructors from the local Hispanic Services Council.
The group will gather at the north Hillsborough school every week to learn about resources in the public schools while their children are provided with dinner and activities in another room.
Principal Woodland Johnson, who addressed the group in English, said he was thrilled to see the first results of what, for school leaders, has long been a dream.
Then Luz Zuluaga and Maria Garavito got down to business.
Why are the parents here, they asked?
To help their children, they agreed.
Who wants their children to attend college?
Two hands went up. Then three. Then, gradually, nearly every woman raised her hand.
But when Zuluaga asked how many knew how precisely to get their children into college, or if they were familiar with the Florida Standards Assessment, or bureaucratic terms like TItle I, she got a lot of smiles and blank stares.
"Well, don't worry, you're going to learn all of that here," Zuluaga assured them.
The group included some parents who were bilingual and some who spoke very little English. One woman, from Chiapas, Mexico, said her family has been in the community only a month.
Mort, according to last year's district numbers, is 58 percent Hispanic and 96 percent low-income. The Children's Home Society and a consortium of local nonprofit organizations are investing millions to create a community school project here that will seek to stabilize the neighborhood through economic, educational and medical resources that, in turn, should boost the children's chances in school.
But an important first step is parent engagement.
Zuluaga handed out an illustration that lists average salaries for various jobs including food service, accountant, doctor and lawyer.
She urged the mothers to put aside any fears that might stop them from coming into the school and asking hard questions.
Speak up if your child is struggling in math, she urged them. If you don't, he might not get help. If you do, the school can find him a tutor.
Don't let a language barrier stop you, she told them. Plenty of school employees speak Spanish. You can always look for the English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher.
She gave them a homework assignment: Learn the name of the principal, the guidance counselor, and your child's teacher. Johnson's name is easy to remember: Just think of Johnson and Johnson, the company that makes all of those baby products.
In the coming weeks, the instructors will provide tools that include a computer link they can use with their smart phones. Write an email to your child's teacher, in Spanish, and it will translate automatically into English.
The parents were encouraged to invite their friends; and to get to know one another, as a support group.
"Don't be a afraid of the school," Zuluaga said, several times. "The school is here to help you."