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McGrath works on language barrier

McGrath Elementary, with a 78-percent Hispanic student body, holds PTA meetings in Spanish

Posted: November 6, 2010 7:23 p.m.
Updated: November 7, 2010 4:30 a.m.
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At McGrath Elementary School, Parent-Teacher Association meetings are held a little differently.

They’re conducted entirely in Spanish, and translators are on hand to interpret discussions for the handful of English-speaking parents and administrators.

Fliers about the Newhall school’s fundraisers and schoolwide events are distributed in Spanish and English to the school’s nearly 700 students, 78 percent of whom are Hispanic.

McGrath is the Santa Clarita Valley’s first PTA led by an entirely Spanish-speaking group of parents, and the school is part of a statewide trend that encourages parents of all backgrounds to get involved in their kids’ schools.

“Every parent wants the best for their child,” California State PTA President Jo Loss said.

McGrath’s PTA leadership switched over this year, and the parents have picked up the same duties, including leading fundraisers for the school, volunteering in the classrooms and helping out around the school.

“It’s pretty much the same as you see at any other school,” Principal Larry Heath said. “It was really something we needed to get over that there was this language barrier.”

Newhall School District figures show that 53 percent of McGrath students are English-language learners and 72 percent of its students are socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Yet despite the challenges, the school boosts an Academic Performance Index score of 859, far exceeding the state’s goal of 800.

Heath doesn’t anticipate that the PTA meetings will always be conducted in Spanish.

All of the parents are enrolled in English-as-a-second-language classes that the school hosts with College of the Canyons.

“We are going to be transitioning in time back to English,” he said.

School involvement
Many of the McGrath PTA leaders say they always wanted to get involved in their kids’ lives, but weren’t comfortable because of their English skills.

“They felt like they didn’t understand what was going on,” said Jacqui Ponce, McGrath community liaison and PTA translator.

Since the changes, parents say they are now more comfortable talking to the school’s teachers and organizing benefits for the school. Families feel more involved in the school and the McGrath community becomes closer.

The school recently organized a “Fundraising Kermess,” which brought together dozens of families at Newhall Park to share food and culture. The event raised $5,000 for McGrath. Another fundraising drive earlier this year raised $7,000.

“Before, we used to see things from the outside,” said Alejandra Acosta, PTA membership chair, through a translator. “Now we see it from the inside.”

A new outreach
The California State PTA is in the midst of an outreach effort to promote parent involvement to people of all backgrounds, especially Spanish.

“We’re translating virtually all of our materials in Spanish,” Loss said.

The result has been an increase in the number of Spanish-speaking parents joining PTAs at California schools, Loss said.

“As they gain confidence and information about California public schools, they are getting involved,” Loss said. “It’s growing and I would say that there is probably a predominant Spanish PTA in most communities.”

Newhall School District board member Suzan Solomon sees the outreach as the PTA’s response to a changing state.

“The PTA organization in itself has had to evolve with the changes that have occurred in our society,” said Solomon, who serves as vice president of education for the California State PTA.

“It’s important for PTA to involve people from all walks of life in order to sustain itself and be that voice for children.”

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