Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Latino parents unite after Einstein incident

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
A group of mostly Latino parents marched along Newport Mill Road to Albert Einstein High School where they met with Principal James Fernandez and state and county lawmakers on Friday. The parents had been meeting since the April 9 gun incident at the school, and want to work with the school to improve the lives and education of their children.
A gun incident at Albert Einstein High School last month is spurring the school’s Latino community into action.

A group of Latino parents has been meeting weekly to address the issues of gangs, race and academic achievement since an April 9 incident involving several Latino students resulted in a police lockdown after a gun was fired in a school bathroom. On Friday night, the group held a march prior to a planned community meeting with Einstein Principal James Fernandez and state and county lawmakers.

‘‘We need to be part of the solution, not just waiting around for them to tell us what the solution is. We have to act as a community,” said Alex Colina, an organizer of the parent group ‘‘El Comite Latino.”

About 80 mostly Latino parents marched along Newport Road from Newport Mill Middle School to nearby by Einstein carrying signs written in Spanish that translate to English as: ‘‘Safe Schools Now” and ‘‘Parents involved in education = sons with success.”

‘‘It could be very easy to isolate ourselves back into our own community after something like [the gun incident],” said Ray Moreno of Silver Spring. ‘‘We have questions. How can we be more involved? We want to play a bigger role in our kid’s lives at school.”

Hispanic students are the largest ethnic group at the school and comprise 41 percent of the more than 1,500 students at the school, according to the Montgomery County Public Schools Web site.

Colina and other parents said they did not know many Latino parents active in the school’s PTSA. According to Kelly Giblin, PTSA president, there isn’t an ‘‘overwhelming number” of Latino parents active in the group.

‘‘Just because you don’t take a leadership position or attend meetings, doesn’t mean you don’t care about your children’s education,” she said. ‘‘We’re feeling very positive about the small groundswell that’s happening. ... You have to take something that’s scary and alarming and see something positive come out of it.”

Giblin plans to arrange for translator services at the next PTSA meeting, which is set for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Sonia Gonzales, another member of the Latino parents group, said parents need to be more involved in their children’s lives in and out of the classroom.

‘‘Many of us are in this country because we want the best for our children,” she said in Spanish during the march. ‘‘But we don’t check up on them, we don’t deal with the school, we don’t do anything. That is not how things will change.”

Colina, the parent of an eighth-grader who will attend Einstein in the fall, believed that Latino parents would be more committed to a Spanish parent group so decided to form El Comite Latino.

He said that several Latino parents felt out of place at a previous meeting between the school and parents following the April 9 lockdown because the meeting was held in English.

Friday’s meeting was conducted mostly in Spanish for the 50 or so parents who attended following the march.

Fernandez said he was pleased with the turnout and the willingness of the parents to commit to the school community.

Nearly half of Einstein’s Latino students are in honors or advanced placement courses, he said, but there is a problem with absenteeism.

He said that attendance in school and extracurricular activities will improve if parents are more involved with their kids.

‘‘We can never express how exciting this is,” he said during Friday’s meeting. ‘‘... Nobody is not important at this school. I promise you we will listen to you.”

Many parents said they hoped different groups would come together over the summer to form a larger, more representative PTSA going forward.

Virgie Barnes, of Silver Spring, said she hoped that an existing group of African-American parents would work with the new Latino group and eventually gel into a cohesive advocacy group.

‘‘[April 9] was really a catalyst that this community needed to get everything moving forward,” she said. ‘‘There were different groups of parents trying to do things from different angles.”

County health officials were also at Friday’s meeting, as well as representatives from the Gaithersburg nonprofit Identity Inc., a group that offers after-school programs and counseling for Latino youth and families.

Also represented was the YMCA branch in Silver Spring, which runs an after-school athletics program three times a week that serves more than 300 youngsters.

Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Dist. 18) of Chevy Chase, county school board President Nancy Navarro (Dist. 5) of Silver Spring and County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring urged parents to building on the momentum.

‘‘About eight years ago, this school had the most active Latino PTA in the entire county,” Gutierrez told parents at the meeting. ‘‘Awards were won here from the school board because of how active the Latino parents were. Here we showed what is possible when Latinos come together.”