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El Buen Pastor: Helping Latino families de-mystify school

For many immigrant mothers in Forsyth County, the first day of school highlights the challenges they face living in a new culture. Never having attended a U.S. school, they’re unsure of what is expected of their children—or of themselves. As they’re often not fluent in the language their children will use at school, these mothers worry about providing them with the same level of support as other parents, who are longtime residents.

To help these mothers find their way, El Buen Pastor Community Services runs kindergarten readiness programs called “Listos”—which means “ready” in Spanish. They offer immigrant mothers classes that build confidence and parenting skills through hands-on experience with educators, library staff, and child health professionals. Listos is designed for both mothers and their children with the aim of getting the entire family ready for the experience of school in the U.S.

A longtime grantee of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, El Buen Pastor received a 2015 award from Great Expectations, the Trust’s early childhood education initiative, to reach families in meaningful ways. Listos is one of its efforts.


Building a program fit for Forsyth County

Finding the right mix for Forsyth County’s Latino immigrant population took some experimentation. For Erika Stewart, El Buen Pastor’s director of family literacy, that journey began with a simple question to mothers: “What do you need now?”

Through focus groups, she came to realize that El Buen Pastor’s initial kindergarten readiness model was built for teenage mothers who were third- or fourth-generation immigrants. However, this curriculum did not reflect the needs of the Latino community of Forsyth County, which tended to consist of new immigrants. “They knew how to change a diaper,” said Erika,” What they needed to know was, “What does this new culture bring? What are the expectations for school?”

Funds through the Trust’s Great Expectations efforts allowed Erika to update the program. She introduced activities that encouraged mothers to share and learn from each other. Soon moms were creating toys for their children and learning how to use them to teach English vocabulary and social skills. Erika also localized the program by bringing providers in to talk about how to access services in Forsyth County. Staff from the hospital, schools, and libraries came to classes to show these mothers how to use each service—and soften the sense of isolation felt by many immigrants by connecting a face to a program.

Classes were accompanied with direct home visits, where educators demonstrated techniques to help children learn to read. For Erika, these visits are critical to help mothers “see that every interaction they have with a child is an opportunity to teach kids about how to interact with the world.”


From participant to parenting instructor

After seeing the impact Listos had on themselves and their children, parents asked for additional, advanced classes. To serve this need, El Buen Pastor began the “Mas Listos” program, which allowed families to continue to build skills and maintain the relationships they built during Listos. After graduating Mas Listos, several parents returned to teach the next generation of Listos families. According to Erika, the presence of Listos graduates at the beginning of a new term makes a strong impression.  “It’s an incredible motivation when they talk to the brand new women who are just getting a start and say ‘I used to be just like you, I didn’t know anybody, but look at me now.'”

One mother reflected on her growth from participant to volunteer, stating, “I was very shy when I started this program, and I had very few friends. Now, all of that has changed. My shyness is gone. I have more confidence—I come here to volunteer, which I’ve never done before in my life.”

Gearing up for another year at school

On a typically humid late July day, Listos’ summer program wraps up in a cozy fashion. A guest from the local library performs a story to families about school, modeling interactive reading techniques, and helping the children build excitement about the upcoming school year. When the librarian finishes, the children go off to play on a fold-out toy school bus, while mothers plan carpools for the upcoming school year. Their warm conversations are a stark contrast to the sense of loneliness many mothers experience when they first arrive in an unfamiliar country. “I feel more prepared now and better understand how my children are doing,” reflected one of the participants. “I feel more secure in being a mom.”

This article originally appeared at the Great Expectations website. It is republished here with the author’s permission.

Cate Elander

Cate Elander is a program manager at MDC, where she supports the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust’s Great Expectations initiative.