LACOOCHEE — Teodora Romero wanted to help her children succeed in school, but she didn't know how.
A Mexican immigrant who speaks almost exclusively Spanish, Romero felt overwhelmed by the assignments her third-grade son Luis and kindergarten daughter Berniece brought home from Lacoochee Elementary School.
Worse, she lacked the comfort level with English to approach their teachers or others who work at the school.
"I was intimidated," Romero said quietly, with the help of a bilingual friend.
She wasn't alone.
Principal Karen Marler, who grew up in the poor, rural community and still lives nearby, knew of dozens of parents in the same situation. She could see it just in the school's lack of parental participation.
And she didn't like it.
So Marler recruited educators from her staff and from the district administration to create a "parent university."
"We wanted them to feel empowered when they left, to be able to do better things for their children," Marler said. "A child's first teachers are their parents."
For months, the teachers drafted a course outline geared toward skills that parents said they needed.
They included things such as understanding the technology the children use at school, knowing how to better communicate with the teachers and finding better ways to help their kids read.
"We're basing the program on their needs, rather than saying, 'This is what we think you need,' " said Noreen Kraebel, a district Title I parent involvement educator.
The courses began in January with eight moms. The group has grown to two dozen, and already they've seen positive results.
"It has helped me," said Romero, who also is taking English classes through Catholic Charities. "I learn how can I participate in school. This year I am a volunteer. … I am more involved with my kids. When my kids tell me, 'Mommy, can you help me read that book,' I am more confident. I have many (new) friends, too."
Rose Hernandez, whose son Nathaniel is in kindergarten, liked that the program is interactive.
"They not only give you materials. They give you the tools to work with your children," said Hernandez, who moved here from New York and is bilingual. "It has motivated me."
On a recent Thursday evening, Hernandez and Romero paired up to practice the lessons that reading coach Bev Moses had just provided.
They sat together with the book, El Oso Curioso (The Curious Bear), Romero playing the part of mom and Hernandez acting as the child.
Romero began with the book's cover, making sure to ask questions about the title and author, inquiring about whether Hernandez understood the word curioso and then encouraging her to read the story.
She highlighted the importance of the pictures, in understanding the story, as Moses recommended, and she made an effort to tie the tale to Hernandez's own experiences.
Afterward, Romero said having such information made her feel less afraid of working with the materials her children bring home.
It helps, Hernandez said, that the school's leaders have gone to such great lengths to make the mostly Spanish-speaking parents feel at ease. One key was the participation of Clara Barlow, a paraprofessional who used to teach at a university in Colombia, as the group's translator.
Throughout Thursday's session, Barlow would take the information presented by Marler, Moses and Kraebel and explain it to the women whose English was minimal. Her presence made the group feel more welcome at the school, Hernandez said.
Barlow, who volunteers for the parent university, explained she's just wanting to make the parents' lives easier.
She recalled that when she moved to the United States seven years ago, she didn't speak English and it wasn't always easy to communicate.
"We have to help each other," Barlow said.
Knowing that language is a stumbling block, Marler said the district has purchased some mini computers and software for the families to take home to help them learn English. The initiative includes a tutor who is available by phone for a year.
"This stemmed from the (parent) university and their desire to be better informed and better able to communicate," Marler said.
So far, it seems to be working, Kraebel said.
"It's a sense of accomplishment (for them)," she said. "I knew we were successful when one of the boys in the care program said to me, 'Well, what did my mom learn tonight?' "
The participants' enthusiasm has Lacoochee educators talking about expanding the effort for next year. They're looking into field trips, additional lessons — all sorts of ideas to get more parents into the school and involved.
"The more we meet, the more we realize the impact it can have on our school," Marler said. "The opportunity for positive collaboration between parents is few and far between in this community. … The key is to get them here and get them talking."
When the parents finish the program in May, the school is preparing a banquet and award ceremony, to be followed by a graduation, complete with cap and gown. It's to give the moms a sense of accomplishment for achieving an academic goal, one that many have not experienced in the past.
Hernandez said she would recommend that others take advantage of the program, not just for their own sense of self, but also for their children.
"I feel like this should actually be a requirement," she said. The children "see us motivated, and it motivates them, too."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.