It’s sweltering hot in the basement of East Boston High School. Industrial fans blow as a teacher begins her lesson.
“Welcome to our last day. I’m going to miss you guys,” teacher Joanna Ellingsen says.
For the last four weeks, a group of first and second graders have come to this basement to learn how to read and write. As the children of immigrants whose first language isn’t English, they need extra help. And in a surprising twist on summer school, this program has included their parents, hoping it might demystify school for adults who didn’t grow up in the American system.
“Dog. D. What kind of letter is that?” Ellingsen yells loud enough to be heard over the din.
“Consonant,” the adults yell back.
Six-year-old Jonathan Lopez and his mother came to the U.S. a little over a year ago from El Salvador. His mother, Maria Ramos, asks him what it’s been like to be in class with her. Before she can finish, he jumps up and yells, “Feliz!”
Lopez says he’s drawn pictures, played word games and read lots of books here. He’s learned to pronounce new words, although he says he still can’t say “worm”.
Ramos says she's also learned new vocabulary, but, in Spanish, says the most important part has been “sharing time” with her son. “Here, I almost never spend time with him since I work so much,” she says, referring to the United States.
That’s a common sentiment among some of the parents here.
Gustavo Santiago has been coming to class with his son, who’s headed into first grade next month. Santiago works as a carpenter and says he and his wife have little downtime to spend with their two children. Santiago rocks his one-year-old daughter in her stroller and beams when his son reads some of the assigned books on his own.
Santiago says he made a point never to miss class this summer, even dragging his infant daughter along most days.
“We’re examples for our children,” he says in Spanish.
Boston Public School officials say they've found that parents like Santiago and Ramos, who have attended classes with their kids, have been more likely to participate in their kids’ education. Cyntoria Grant is the director of family and school engagement practice in Boston’s Office of Engagement, which started this program four years ago.
She says these parents will be more likely to come to schools and help their kids with their homework “even it they don’t know how to do it exactly.”
And these parents are also more likely to sign up for the district’s English-as-a-second-language classes for Boston parents.
Santiago plans to attend.
“Whatever I can do help my son get ahead in this country,” he says.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Cyntoria Grant's title. She is the director of family and school engagement practice.
Our coverage of K through 12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.