Bridging the Engagement Gap
for Spanish Speaking Families
Imagine navigating the COVID-19 pandemic when you don’t speak English and don’t fully understand the public health guidelines or how to get help. Add to that being the parent of a high schooler, watching your child struggle to adapt, but you are not able to read the communications coming from the school. This stressful scenario is the lived experience of many Latinx parents in Petaluma, and Side by Side has stepped in to help. 

You Thrive program manager Adrian Maldonado met with school administrators at the beginning of the school year and identified parent engagement as a key priority, with a clear focus on Spanish-speaking students “because they were having a hard time and their families were not being reached,” says Maldonado. Working with ELAC (English Learners Advisory Committee) representatives for Petaluma City Schools, Maldonado and SBS's Director of Sonoma/Napa programs, Denisse Mendoza, designed a native language outreach and education program to help. 

Why is it so important to involve families? “We hear from these youth that they feel their parents don’t understand what they are going through,” says Mendoza. “They feel alone in their struggle, and they want their parents to understand their experience.” Maldonado adds, “When parents are engaged and value education, they are more likely to participate in their child’s schooling, and they are also more likely to be disciplined about schoolwork, both of which are of great benefit to the youth.”
Petaluma High School assistant principal Erin Dinday is grateful for the new program. “Presenting to these parents in their native language helps to get them engaged and involved. We don’t have those bilingual capabilities and wouldn’t have seen the same results without Side by Side’s support.”
Workshops started with introductions to Zoom, email, and other basic technology to get everyone up to speed. Then the focus turned to mental health and overall wellness. Future topics will include helping parents support their kids as in-person school resumes.

The recent workshop entitled “Communication and Boundaries with Your Teenager” drew a lot of attention and positive feedback. “These parents were raised in a different culture where they did not have these types of conversations,” says Mendoza. “It’s a different way of talking with your kid, so they need a guide.” One parent remarked, “It feels like I make the same mistake over and over again with my children. But what I heard today is that I’m not alone because everyone has some kind of struggle with their child and I just wanted to say how helpful this all is.”

Maldonado and Mendoza also work to overcome various cultural barriers that keep parents from getting engaged. “There is a cultural belief that ‘the school knows best,’” says Mendoza. “So, informing these parents of their kids’ educational rights, and that it’s OK to ask questions and advocate is a big barrier to overcome.” Maldonado adds that the parents’ educational background can also come into play. “If parents only have a 5th or 6th grade educational background, advocating for their high schooler can be pretty intimidating, even without the added challenge of a language barrier.” 

Maldonado and Mendoza are encouraged by the results. “Even pre-pandemic, Latinx parents are generally more disengaged with their kids’ education. These workshops are really helping to change that.” One parent’s comment attests to that. “I was raised in a different country and I grew up differently. Going to these workshops and talking to other parents reminds me that the learning doesn’t stop. I have to understand that my kids are being raised in a different time and in a different place, and I have to change too.”

Moving forward, the team hopes to train parents to be group leaders and mentors. Mendoza says, “Parents are more likely to reach out to another parent, and we think this will drive even more engagement and empower parents to advocate for their kids.”

As of March 16, Vernon Pope Banks assumed the role of YouThrive Program Supervisor and will be managing the program going forward. Side by Side is grateful for Adrian Maldonado's past leadership of YouThrive and wish him the best in his new position at On The Move.