‘Empowered with potential’
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
When Mario Castillo loads up his young family for a shopping trip to Rohnert Park, there’s one landmark along the way that always sparks conversation – Sonoma State University.
The picturesque college campus doesn’t pass without notice. It represents opportunity, education and accomplishment, everything Castillo imagines for his two children.
“It’s a dream,” says Castillo, 37. “When we go to buy groceries at the Food Maxx we talk about it.”
Castillo was 15 when he arrived in the United States from Mexico with a sixth-grade education and no English-language skills. Like many fellow immigrants in Sonoma Valley, he labored in enough low-paying, back-breaking jobs to know he wanted a better life for his children, 11-year-old Alex and 8-year-old Abigail.
Castillo is so dedicated to his dream that he helped establish a parent-leadership group at his neighborhood grade school, where 86 percent of the families live in poverty. His goal is to help not only his children, but those throughout his school community as well.
Castillo and El Verano School Principal Maite Iturri founded Universidad de Padres three years ago after the two became acquainted when Castillo’s son started kindergarten at the school.
The program (Parent University in English) brings parents together for monthly discussions of their choosing, from positive discipline and couples communications to bullying and the value of video games. Professional speakers are sometimes invited to share information and facilitate discussions, other months parents lead the group.
When one parent mentioned a desire to visit a college campus for the first time, organizers arranged a tour of UC Davis. A springtime visit to Sonoma State University is now in the works, too.
The program is designed for parents to share ideas and resources, respect opinions, support one another and engage in lively dialogue. Castillo attends with his wife, Maria Carreras, and is the unofficial facilitator and a role model as well.
Though he struggled after arriving in the U.S. from a tiny village in Michoacan and ultimately dropped out of high school, Castillo rebounded. He took English classes and earned both a GED and a certificate in social services from Santa Rosa Junior College.
That determination led him to progressively more responsible jobs in social services programs in the valley and won an appointment from then-Supervisor Valerie Brown as the first Latino member of the county Human Rights Commission.
Iturri says it’s successes like Castillo’s that illustrate the value of hard work despite seemingly crushing odds.
For Universidad de Padres participants, Iturri says they slowly recognize they hold solutions and can help guide one another through challenging circumstances, whether it’s a child who won’t go to bed on time or one who doesn’t see the value of schoolwork.
About 20 parents attend regularly, but the effect trickles to others.
Parents begin to see “that they have their own answers,” says Iturri, “and they can use themselves as examples. They can engage in conversation and share different strategies with each other.
“I think it’s caused parents to be more interested in what goes on in the school,” she says. “It sets a climate of ‘We’re here to help you.’ It sets the tone for people to be more participatory.”
Iturri, 50, so deeply believes in the power of parent involvement that the topic of her master’s thesis at Sonoma State was parent participation in the Latino community. She’s currently completing her doctorate at UC Davis, with community and family involvement among her areas of study.
Bilingual in Spanish and English, the principal grew up in a bicultural home in San Francisco with a Basque father who couldn’t speak English. She knows firsthand the challenges that students face when language barriers exist. At El Verano, 80 percent of the families are Spanish-speaking.
Castillo says it’s easy to recognize Iturri’s empathy and genuine desire to help students and parents alike.
Upon meeting Iturri, “I liked her. I felt she was honest. She wanted so much to help us. I would sense that she cared,” he says. “She will walk the walk.”
Castillo says many parents have gained self-confidence through their participation in Universidad de Padres.
“You have empowered them with their potential,” he says.
Iturri has noticed a positive shift as well.
“Parents are very confident and comfortable coming in to talk to me about issues they have and issues they’re interested in,” she says. “It’s given them a sense of leadership.”
She says at least one parent took her skills from the program and landed a “pretty important job. I don’t know if she would have done that before,” Iturri says.
At El Verano, a campus of 440 students from kindergarten through the fifth-grade (with another 35 children in an early-intervention preschool program), Iturri is noticing a steady increase in parent involvement, one that she knows will ultimately help with student achievement.
While the school’s standardized test scores aren’t impressive, Iturri firmly believes there are other variables to judge student success. Universidad de Padres is one positive step in the right direction.
When there’s a climate of parent interest, involvement and ownership, “ultimately it leads to academic and social success for their children,” Iturri says.
“It makes a huge impact on children.”