More than 100 parents and students packed the Graham Middle School multipurpose room Tuesday night for a special kind of graduation. To the sound of rolling applause, 67 Graham parents approached the stage, one by one, to accept a certificate from school staff while their families cheered them on.
It may sound like a curious role-reversal, but to the Latino families graduating from Graham's Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE) program this week, the ceremony marks a big change in the way they treat public education.
The PIQE program is an 11-week class designed to teach families speaking English as a second language all the ins-and-outs of the public education system. The program plays a key role in helping parents advocate for their children, get more involved in the classroom, and understand what their students need to do in order to succeed through high school and beyond.
Every Tuesday for the last 11 weeks, the 67 parents have been meeting up at the school at 6 p.m. After hosting a dinner paid for out of their own pockets, the parents begin the class at 6:30 while their children go to a child care program. Manny Velasco, Graham's School Linked Services Coordinator, said it's been extraordinary seeing the kind of commitment parents are willing to show by attending classes week after week, despite all the barriers.
"A lot of these families work two or three jobs and don't speak English," Velasco said. "Many of them didn't go through the school system at all in their home countries."
Among the lessons taught in the class, Velasco said parents learn how to engage teachers and what kinds of questions they should be asking, where to go for translation services, and where they can seek out resources on campus. Velasco said they learn about how to set up a home environment that is conducive to studying, including better nutritional and sleeping habits.
PIQE has a regional presence and runs out of dozens of schools throughout the South Bay. But it's been particularly popular at Graham, through both word of mouth and a concerted demand for the program.
"All the parents are happy about it," Velasco said. "Just the fact that they keep coming to a multi-week program like this is crazy, because a lot of them make the commitment even though they have a million other things on their plate."
Among the parents who graduated Tuesday night, 34 of them had perfect attendance. Some of the parents who have already graduated the program have continued to show up consistently at meetings to support the newer parents. One of those parents, Adriana Diaz, told the Voice after the ceremony that Latino parent involvement has improved drastically in recent years -- due in part to the popularity of the PIQE program. She said the English Language Advisory Council meetings she attended while her child was in sixth grade were sparsely attended, and one of the parents suggested kicking off a PIQE program at Graham. The results, she said, have been shocking.
"We were really surprised with how much the program changed our lives," Diaz said. "The school is totally different now. Parent involvement is much higher."
The expansion of the PIQE program into Graham Middle School started about three years ago, due to persistent demand by one of the parents in the community, according to Janine Ramirez, executive director of the San Jose regional office for PIQE. After sparking enough interest among school administrators, the program has since graduated over 200 parents from the program.
Ramirez said the program plays an important role in letting parents know that they need to work with schools and see them as partners in educating their children rather than expecting the school system to take care of everything. She said many families who come from outside the country are used to the idea that you don't question teachers or school staff and that they don't have a place in the school.
"That is their reality, until someone comes in and says, 'You have a place, you have a right and you have an obligation to get involved,'" Ramirez said.
The Mountain View Whisman School District was recently dinged in a district-wide audit by the firm Cambridge Education for having poor translation services, creating a "barrier" for families who are not fluent in English. The district was also criticized for inadequate outreach to families on what English-language development classes are intended to teach, and what path students can take to become re-classified as fluent in English so they may rejoin regular classes.
Ramirez said the district is hardly alone -- many schools in the area struggle to accommodate families who don't speak English or come from a very different cultural background. Teachers and administrators often times already have their hands full, she said, and it's up to programs like PIQE to fill that gap. And if Graham's high parent enrollment in the program is any indication, there's certainly a desire to get involved.
"Parents are making the effort, not just for one week but for several months, to support their kids," Ramirez said. "When they aren't active in the school system, it's not because they don't care. It's because of what they don't know."