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Buffalo schools help kids by helping parents, grandparents

The room at the end of a hall in East High School looks like any classroom for kids.

Green, yellow, blue and red triangular banners make the light blue walls appear even brighter. Blue cutout letters spell WELCOME and inspirational posters are affixed to the windows: "Set your goal and focus on it." "You begin to achieve when you begin to believe." "If you’re not afraid of failure, you’ll seldom have to face it."

But a closer look makes clear that the room is designed for adults. Posters suggest the top 10 ways to build self-esteem and handle stress, and a flier targets parents with the message: "We can help."

Help is exactly what about 20 parents, grandparents and guardians were looking for when they signed up for the Healing Circle in East’s Parent Center. It was one of about 35 workshops and courses offered during February alone in the Buffalo Public Schools’ four new Parent Centers, located in high schools in each quadrant of the city  – East, Bennett, Lafayette and South Park.

The goal is to increase parent participation in the schools as well as in district events and to strengthen the district’s collaboration with parents, parent groups and organizations that help parents and families.

Research has shown that parents involved in schools can boost a child’s performance by almost a full letter grade and that parental involvement also correlates with better attendance and fewer suspensions and behavioral incidents.

The Parent Centers – which are open weekday mornings and evenings and some Saturdays – debuted Oct. 24. Through January, about 1,546 people had participated in the various offerings in a district of 34,000 students.

Before the classes were developed, some 500 parents were surveyed to see what topics would help them learn to help their kids. Courses range from understanding state graduation requirements, the college application process and kindergarten readiness to providing multilingual family support.

Not all of the workshops focus on academics. Some help the adults deal with their own problems, but in so doing, enhance their ability to help their kids succeed in school.

Healing parents first

On a recent Saturday morning, Mario Thompson was among the 20 or so people in East’s Healing Circle. It was his second time, as he searched for help raising his 8-year-old grandson, whose father died in a car accident last year. Thompson has five adult children, from five relationships, living in five different states. His biggest pain is the separation.

"I could have been there more, but I wasn’t. So this is also a walk for me," he said of the Healing Circle.

The sessions are designed to help adults deal with their own problems and obstacles so that they, in turn, will be better equipped to help the children in their care.

"This is the place I need to be in so I can share with my grandson. And it helps me to heal from the things I’ve walked away from. It’s been a help and a healing. I can give him information and help him, while also being helped myself," Thompson said.

The adults are seated in a circle so they can see one another. Group leader Denise Walden poses questions and participants take turns answering:"Do you feel like past hurts are affecting you now?" "What makes it difficult to deal with or face the hurt?"

The point of this exercise is to engage in raw dialogue and get individuals to open up about things they may have been keeping inside. After all, "if you don’t deal with an issue or hurt, it will grow," said Walden, a minister at Renovation Church.

Though a main goal of the centers is to get more parents involved, visits to three sessions at two centers show that many participants are those who already are involved in the district, such as by being parent facilitators at their child’s school. Even so, part of their job is to get information to take back to other parents, and BPS officials hope the facilitators can get the word out to more caregivers.

Cheryl Ruttlen is a parent facilitator at the Arthur O. Eve School of Distinction, which is how she heard about East’s Healing Circle. But Ruttlen wasn’t there in an official capacity. She was there as a grandmother raising her grandson after the boy’s 29-year-old father was killed in an altercation.

Ruttlen, who had thought she was done raising kids, came looking for any support she could get. That’s also why she had attended another workshop – Parenting Fatherless Sons – at Bennett’s Parent Center the week before.

"It wasn’t like other groups I’ve attended," Ruttlen said at the end of the Healing Circle. "This was much better because I was able to get feedback on things that were really bothering me. It was good."

Money for caregivers

Denise Parrish is employed by the district as the parent liaison at East’s Parent Center. But tonight she’s wearing her grandmother hat as she attends an evening session on grandparents raising grandchildren at Lafayette’s Parent Center.

She has lived in Buffalo since 2011 and has sole custody of her 16-year-old grandson. She said the boy’s dad is in prison and his mother – Parrish’s daughter – is a lesbian who got pregnant at a young age and was not equipped to raise her son.

"Then I had to step up and be the parent that he needed," said Parrish.

The Parent Centers provide practical guidance to help adults who find themselves in that or similar situations. On this night, Parrish and a handful of other participants went to Lafayette for the workshop "To Grandma’s House We...Stay." It offers solutions to challenges they may face while raising their grandchildren – such as dealing with finances, the child’s social and emotional problems, negligent parents and navigating court systems.

The group learned about the Non-Parent Caregiver Grant that is offered through state and local governments and can provide up to $400 per month for one child and $125 for each additional child in a family. But according to public assistance data, only about 32,000 of the potentially eligible 410,000 children across the state who are living with grandparents or other relatives are receiving the non-parent grant, said group leader Gwendolyn Humphrey, supervisor of the district’s Office of Parent and Family Engagement.

"I actually learned something from that that I didn’t even know," Parrish said. "I didn’t know grandparents could get income and you don’t have to have custody. You can get income just raising them. Now I’m sharing with another grandmother to help her get income. And we can get discounts on travel. There are a lot of things for grandparents that they maybe can get help from."

The pre-K literacy gap

When children enter pre-kindergarten they should know, among other things, their first and last names and their parents’ first and last names, address and phone number, and their birthday.

By kindergarten, they should recognize letters of the alphabet, know how to group letters to form words, decipher meaning, follow directions and engage in conversation.

But the truth is, many youngsters entering Buffalo’s schools for the first time start out way behind. For instance, they typically know 600 to 700 words, when they should know more than 3,000, district officials say. And the situation is even more dire for many children, who come from homes without books and where they are just trying to survive, said Nancy Kalinowski, who was leading a Kindergarten Readiness class in Lafayette’s Parent Center.

Vivian Ojumu takes notes on how to prepare children for school at a kindergarten readiness class in Lafayette High School's Parent Center. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

This session – held during a weekday morning – is one of the education-centered classes offered at the Parent Centers. It was designed specifically to help parents learn the skills necessary for their children to be ready for kindergarten.

Six people attended on this day, including Nourah Ali, a Yemen native who reads all of the information and translates for her sister-in-law Bushar Salhe, who has a 4-year-old daughter in pre-K.

Both women found the information helpful, Ali said, especially since it also is helping Salhe learn English, right alongside her daughter.

"They do the letters together. Mom is still learning her letters. She doesn’t know how to write yet, but she does the drawings along with her daughter," said Ali, who speaks and writes English fluently.

Ali came to the United States in 1990, returned home, came again in 2001 and has been living in Buffalo with her family ever since. Salhe has been here almost a year.

"It’s very helpful to start kids with reading," Ali said of the Kindergarten Readiness workshop.

Will it work?

The Parent Centers are a key part of Superintendent Kriner Cash’s "New Education Bargain" to improve schools.

One challenge will be attracting parents not already involved in their child’s education. The district publicizes the offerings through its website, robocalls to homes, parent facilitators in each school and community newspapers and fliers disseminated in neighborhood hubs like barber shops, beauty salons, pediatrician offices, fitness classes and cooking classes, said Ramona Reynolds, instructional specialist in the Office of Parent and Family Engagement.

Officials also plan to augment those efforts by working with parent organizations like the District Parent Coordinating Council and Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization as well as with other partners like the Parent Network, Every Person Influences Children (EPIC) and Say Yes Buffalo, said Associate Superintendent Eric Rosser.

As for judging the success of the Parent Centers, the district will do that by looking at the data, Rosser added.

"Let’s say my mother... goes to a Parent Center for a number of different workshops. We want to be able to track the number of times she has attended and participated in a Parent Center activity," Rosser said. "Then we would link my mom’s activity to my grades and my attendance to see whether or not her interactions at the Parent Center had any affect on the academics, attendance, discipline, aspirations for college attendance."

But in a district where thousands of students face extreme poverty, homelessness and abuse – and where a recent survey revealed that 35 percent of high-schoolers had seen someone shot, stabbed or beaten in their neighborhood – some parents and grandparents already see the centers’ value.

Ruttlen, for instance, said she would return to East’s Healing Circle, and she planned to bring a friend.

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