Neighborhood-building effort extends to free kindergarten prep for parents

A collaborative effort of local education groups, nonprofits and businesses to empower families in low-income Salem neighborhoods now includes online classes focused on early literacy skills in English and Spanish.

Whitney Contreras and her son Ivan greet a friend at the Hallman Neighborhood Family Council’s inaugural “Fun Fridays at Northgate Park” event on Friday, July 9, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The last time Whitney Contreras spoke to her son’s teacher, she received a promising report.

Her 3-year-old son, Ivan, was a quick learner, easily recognized patterns, and took further steps.

Contreras, 26, said toys and activities are how she takes a monthly online course for parents, which shows her simple ways to help Ivan learn at home, even with a job. busy time.

“Anything that helps me be a better parent, I will do,” she said.

Contreras is one of more than a dozen Salem mothers who are part of a broader effort to reach parents of preschoolers and help them prepare their children for success in school.

She took part in similar lessons when her older children, now aged 5 and 6, were in kindergarten, but said it was helpful to have a reminder and have access to new toys .

“It fits perfectly because my son is 3 years old,” she said.

The courses are the result of a new collaboration between the Marion Polk Early Learning Hub and the Salem Business and Education Community Leaders Group.

It’s part of a broader campaign to improve the lives of children in Salem, with a particular focus on those who historically haven’t had access to the kind of support needed to thrive in school and life. life.

This is reflected in local schools’ kindergarten readiness data, which measures the ability of students entering the school to recognize letters and numbers. The gaps in Salem are significant along racial and income lines, with children from more affluent and whiter schools generally recognizing far more letters than their peers.

Jim Seymour, the former executive director of Catholic Community Services, leads the project, which began in earnest last year with the creation of a Hallman Neighborhood Council.

He said the philosophy behind the effort is that real change comes from parents and families recognizing problems in their own communities and identifying solutions, rather than poor families being seen as a problem for outsiders to solve.

“Stop trying to fix them or save them and come to the side,” he said.

Through this group, parents in the Northgate area, whose children typically attend Hallman Primary School, meet regularly to discuss neighborhood improvements and ways to support families, such as mental health classes and a group mums patrolling Northgate Park on foot after school to make sure the kids are walking. after school go home safely.

Seymour is now working to expand counseling to other Salem neighborhoods with a high concentration of families living in poverty, starting with the Auburn area in east Salem.

“We’re just trying to create a sense of community where there’s this individual resilience, community resilience, family resilience,” he said.

Free classes for parents are another part of the effort. The collaboration, with funding from Mountain West Investment Corporation, pays Leslye Garcia to host monthly online classes in English and Spanish.

(Disclosure: Larry Tokarski, president of Mountain West, is also a co-founder of Salem Reporter.)

Classes were widely advertised to families in the Hallman area and through the Parent Council, although any Salem parent could enroll.

Garcia reaches out to families one-on-one to offer activities and toys like Wikki Stix, small, colorful wax strips that kids can bend into different shapes. Then, in a two-hour Zoom class, she checks in with parents and explains the basics of literacy and child development.

A late February session in Spanish opened with a few questions to get to know you as a mother logged on from her car and another turned on her camera while feeding her son spaghetti and burgers in her high chair.

“As busy moms, would you rather never have to wash the dishes or never have to do the laundry?” Garcia asked with a broad smile.

Mums relaxed in the classroom, sharing details of their least favorite chores – an endless pile of dishes, for many – and sympathizing at their children’s favorite toys.

“It comes from the heart that they want to do something better for their children. Many of these moms have been moms in the past and they’re like, “I want better for my grandkids,” she said.

The atmosphere is calm and supportive. Garcia is energetic as she explains the purpose of the classes: to give parents the knowledge they need to play with their children in a way that prepares them for school.

Kindergarten expectations have increased in recent years, and children who enter school without knowing the alphabet often struggle to catch up.

“It’s best to prepare children for school before they start school,” she said.

In February, the focus was on letter groups – explaining to parents that children group written letters based on how they look rather than how they sound. The class showed parents activities to help differentiate between curved letters, such as a, c, e, o, and s.

“We want them to notice it before they start learning the names of the letters. That way they won’t confuse them later,” Garcia explained.

Contreras said it’s ideas like this that make the class especially useful — giving her new ways to think about playing with her son. Participating parents also receive small gift cards in addition to toys for their children.

“They make me feel appreciated as a mother,” Contreras said.

Contact journalist Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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