Parents can have huge impact on their child's learning
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 26, 2004
Karina Bland

ABOUT THIS REPORT: The Arizona Republic will track the progress of this year's first-graders at Creighton Elementary School for three years as they learn to read. This is the third story in the series.

Esteban Ramos' mother sits at the kitchen table with her 8-year-old every
night after school, helping him with his homework.

Even if she never sets foot on campus, she will have a positive influence on
how well her son does at school by keeping close tabs on his work at home.

It's the best thing a parent can do in terms of being involved in their child's education, experts agree. Like Esteban, children whose parents are active in their education, regardless of their income or background, learn to read faster and do better in school when parents help them learn at home, partner with teachers, and volunteer at school.

Esteban's mother, Yolanda Ramos, despite working seven days a week and having three children, makes the time to do homework with Esteban. She talks often with his first-grade teacher at Creighton Elementary School, Beatriz Webb, getting regular updates on Esteban's progress and behavior. If the boy steps out of line, he has two women to answer to.

Carlos Viveros' mother volunteers as a chaperone on a field trip to the city library, helping her son and his classmates chose their first library books. By being in the classroom, she knows what and how Carlos is learning and how to help him at home.

Zeferino Rosales, a father of six, spends a day transforming a barren plot of desert at the school into a beautiful garden. His hard work shows his children that school is an important place.

"We know parental involvement has a powerful impact," says Anne Henderson, a consultant for the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University and co-author of A New Wave of Evidence, a review of a decade of research on parent involvement.

Children whose parents are involved in their education like school more, attend regularly and behave better while they're there, Henderson found. They get higher grades and test scores and are more likely to take advanced classes, graduate from high school and go on to college.

Webb knows parents are a powerful influence on whether her students will learn to read. About half of Webb's students - 13 of 27 - are reading at grade level. To help, The Arizona Republic has launched a three-year partnership with the school to provide grant money and tutors.

Halfway into the school year, Webb's class has settled into a happy routine. The children return from music class to find two books at each place, I Can Run and My Cat Muffin. Oriana Lopez, 7, flips open the books and reads with no help from the teacher. She sounds out the words "kind" and "friend." She says smugly, "It's easy."

The sentences on lined paper tacked to the walls are more complex now: "I can jump very high with my jump rope," wrote Irvin Moreno, 7. Under a picture of a crayoned whale, Esteban wrote, "I can see a black whale."

First library cards

The children got their first library cards on a trip to the city library.

It's warm in Webb's classroom on a cold November day, and Esteban sits close to his teacher while she reads a story about the first Thanksgiving. Then, the children draw pictures of their favorite part. Webb tells them, "Don't forget to show your picture to your mom. She will be very happy to see your beautiful picture."

Esteban says he will, tonight, at the kitchen table.

It's early evening in the Ramoses' spotless kitchen in a modest house not far from the central Phoenix school. Yolanda Ramos watches Esteban eat ramen noodles from a Styrofoam cup. He eats from the time he gets home from school until he goes to bed, she says fondly.

"He's very small yet," Ramos says in Spanish. Principal Rosemary Agneessens translates for her: "Even though he's little, I tell him how important his education is."

Ramos shows Esteban how important his education is every night by going through his backpack, helping with homework and reading together.

"If you can't physically be at school, as many people can't, be involved at home," says Karen Tankersley, a Glendale reading consultant, former teacher, principal and superintendent, and author of Threads of Reading.

It's not as noticeable as volunteering in the classroom or baking cupcakes for a class party, Henderson says, but it is the most powerful thing parents can do for their children.

In Tempe, kindergarten teachers send home books and parents sign a sheet saying they have read them with their children. Scottsdale parents sign their third-graders' homework packets, and Glendale high school parents sign progress reports. All are ways to ensure that parents know what their kids are learning.

Often, in low-income areas like around Creighton School, teachers offer training on literacy or new ways of doing math. But educators often mistakenly assume that more affluent parents know those things, Tankersley says.

Parents who are busy and work long hours too often decide to leave the teaching of their children entirely to teachers. But Tankersley encourages parents to know what their kids are learning by sitting with them, or at least being around, while they do homework.

Homework tells parents not only what their children are learning but how. It's practice, not busy work. Ask children, "How did your teacher tell you to do this?" Or, say, "Tell me about your work."

If parents don't understand, Tankersley says, they should ask the teacher at curriculum night or via phone or e-mail how best to help figure out fractions or sound out words.

After school one day in November, Webb's classroom is packed with parents and kids attending literacy training. First-grade teacher Mercedes Hernandez says over the din, "Let your children see you read." Make time for reading, she says, as you would for movies or novellas.

Hernandez and Webb read from a bilingual book called No! No! and No! by Mireille d'Allance, about a child who doesn't want to go to school but then refuses to leave.

The teachers talk about the title and author and describe the cover. They act out the scenes, with Webb pulling Hernandez along to school and Hernandez dragging her feet.

The parents laugh. This is how the teachers want them to read to their children, with sound effects, exaggerated facial expressions and stamping feet. Webb closes the book and tells the parents, "Now it's your turn."

The parents draw their children close and read, mostly in Spanish. That's all right, the teachers tell them. Reading in any language builds vocabulary and creates familiarity with books.

"They're reading," Principal Agneessens whispers and then grins. They had not expected so many parents - 30 in all - on a rainy afternoon.

"You are super parents," Webb tells them.

The books are theirs to take home. She thanks them for coming: "We know you are busy. Your being here says something important."

Partnering with teacher

It's early evening, and Yolanda Ramos is on the phone. Sitting next to her on the couch is Esteban, listening carefully to one side of the conversation. His teacher is on the other end of the line.

It's no reason to panic because Webb calls his mother often, reporting on both good and bad days. The women have teamed up to make sure Esteban behaves and continues to progress in school.

"They want me to be smart," Esteban says, as he runs outside to tend to the chickens. He and his brother, Jesus Martin, 10, take care of the family's chickens, cat and dog. Their mom said no to a rat.

In kindergarten, at a different school, Ramos received almost daily reports about Esteban's bad behavior. At the suggestion of a co-worker, Ramos moved Esteban to Creighton.

Ramos sat her small son down and told him the new school was his second chance. Ramos grew up in Mexico on a rancho and had no chance to go to school. Now she cleans hotel rooms in Scottsdale.

"I don't want that for you," she told Esteban.

He promised to do better.

And he has. Esteban knows what is expected of him at home and at school, because Webb and his parents make that clear. If he refuses to do homework, his mother tells Webb. If he acts up in class, his parents know before bedtime.

"He's changed very, very much for the better," Ramos says. "I always say, 'thank you' to Mrs. Webb because it's not only Esteban but so many other students in her class."

When parents and teachers have the same expectations for homework and behavior, a child is more likely to be successful, Henderson and Tankersley say. Parents know their children better than anyone, so they are the best source for teachers to know how best to teach them. And, if a parent is struggling with, say, getting their child to do math, they should call the teacher. The teacher may have some fresh ideas.

Together, Webb and Ramos figured out how to motivate Esteban. Esteban's dad works in construction in Tucson and comes home on weekends. He and his wife work hard to pay the mortgage on their small house and keep three kids.

"Even though we can only give him a little bit," Ramos says, rubbing Esteban's back, "with the love we have to give, we can move him forward."

Now, when Esteban is well-behaved and completes his first-grade work, he goes on Mondays to a second-grade class to read and, on Tuesday, to shop class.

It's early on a Saturday morning in November, but Zeferino Rosales and a half-dozen other volunteers have been working for hours.

The plan, sketched out in pencil on a sheet of paper, is to a transform a barren piece of desert at Creighton School into a garden. The small cerros, or hills, are marked with ovals; wiggly lines show where a river of rock should go.

Rosales' bigger plan is to make Creighton a more beautiful place to prove to the students how important it is to their parents that they get an education.

Jose Rivas, whose daughter, Mayte, 4, is in the Head Start preschool program at Creighton, took the day off work to help scatter the two truckloads of dirt and gravel and to set the red yucca, bougainvillea, golden barrel and pincushion cactus into the ground.

Leaning on the handle of a shovel, Rivas says, "My daughter will be able to walk by here and say, 'That was my pappy.' "

Their hard work is tangible proof to their kids that school is important, the experts say. When parents come to school, whether to volunteer in the classroom or attend parent-teacher conferences, games or concerts, kids take note.

Even the smallest children understand that it's not always easy for mom or dad to change their schedule or take off work to be at school. Webb says, "The children feel unique."

A boulder's message

The centerpiece of the new garden at Creighton is a huge boulder that took four men to move off the back of Rosales' truck.

"Rosemary," Rosales calls to Principal Agneessens, "be careful that no one steals this rock." They all laugh.

Rosales, a landscaper by trade, and his wife, Guadalupe, are regular volunteers at Creighton. Their son, Christian, 12, chose the big rock for the school garden, while at work with his father. Rosales doesn't know how much it weighs, but he can't put his arms around it.

He could have persuaded his son to chose another rock, but Rosales thought it was important that he move the biggest and heaviest rock to school, as a message to his son: "This is how important school is."

Lifting his sweat-soaked cap and wiping his forehead with the back of his hand, Rosales says, "Your kids, this is how you become the hero for them."

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8614.