By Anna Pier
Just where you might not expect it, there is a little bit of heaven on Riverside Drive. The Family Resource Center at El Verano School opened in April. Housed in side-by-side portables, it is a haven for parents facing a variety of difficulties; a hub for parent volunteers; and the educational center where parents can sign up for classes ranging literally from A to Z — from Aztec dancing to Zumba — with citizenship, ESL and yoga in between. It is also a gathering place for neighborhood seniors.
Its initial success is due to the vision, compassion and dedication of principal Maite Iturri and parent Mario Castillo, with the collaboration of La Luz and many partners.
Angie Sanchez, case manager for the Center, proudly points out that the FRC is the first of its kind in Sonoma County. Sanchez, who brings experience as a family advocate to her job, is able to screen and directly enroll parents in various programs such as MediCal, Covered California and CalFresh. This is thanks to the new “kiosk” direct-link computer, which the county has placed in the FRC in a pilot program, another first in the county and one that saves a trip to Santa Rosa to obtain certain services.
When Sanchez works with someone, she always sets a follow-up meeting, to make sure the client knows how to use the new benefits or other services offered. The center also offers services in the areas of immigration, employment and housing.
What Sanchez likes best is to sit down together with a client and figure things out on the spot. “I know they are leaving with the problem solved.” And so it is not surprising that the hardest thing for her is not being able to do more, or worse, do anything. She describes the current housing crisis as heartbreaking, seeing families who are “trying their best, with their children all set at school,” who find themselves with nowhere to live due to a huge hike in their rent.
Mario Castillo is in charge of parent engagement and program development at the FRC. He spoke to The Sun of the need to build awareness that the stress children live under gets in the way of their academic achievement. He pointed out that over the summer, typically a time for vacation, there were El Verano families receiving “notice to quit” their homes. And four more such families came in on September 1.
But the current housing crisis is only one of the many situations that create stress in the lives of children whose day-to-day reality is the radical economic inequality in the Sonoma Valley, well documented in the county’s Portrait of Sonoma. Imagine the life of a child living well below the poverty line, even though parents work so much they are rarely home. Add to this picture sharing a small apartment with relatives, or another family. The statistics at El Verano would be daunting to some administrators: 83 percent of the students enrolled qualify for federally subsidized free or reduced lunch; 80 percent are Latino, and 70 percent are English learners.
Principal Maite Iturri, in her tenth year at the helm of El Verano, is keenly aware of the many difficult situations that her students live. Her doctoral work at UC Davis focuses on how education works, how people learn, and the challenges that children face at home. She had the vision of El Verano as a “community school”, able to provide on-site help to parents in distress together with educational opportunities for them. A board member of La Luz, Iturri proposed offering client services at her school to that established service organization. La Luz immediately embraced the opportunity.
The spirit of her school parents inspired Iturri to seek a way to provide support for them. Describing the devotion and fierce determination in parents, she said, “They would crawl over broken glass to help their children.”
Mario Castillo epitomizes that devotion to his own children, and works tirelessly to support all the El Verano parents to be able to better help their children succeed. He is understandably proud of the FRC. After eight years as a parent volunteer, Castillo was hired by the Parent-Teacher Organization to continue his highly successful efforts in parent outreach and engagement.
Castillo’s proven work paved the way for the funding from the S.H. Cowell Foundation obtained by La Luz to set up the Family Resource Center. Cowell has also funded an education component at the school, which includes hiring four more teachers, creating collaborative time for teachers, and providing a coach for Iturri.
Castillo says that for him the best thing is when a parent who has come to the center for help ends up as a volunteer at the school. In the month of September 91 families sought help at the resource center. During that same period, an astonishing 311 (an unduplicated number) have volunteered at the school or school-related community events. He also told the Sun how pleased he is that four job openings at El Verano have been filled recently by school parents.
Castillo works closely with Ana Ríos, who stepped into his shoes as site coordinator for Parent University. Herself a parent of three EV students, Ríos has volunteered at the school since her fifth-grader was in pre-school. Ríos expressed her belief that children are inspired by their parents participating at their school. “When the children see their parents helping at their school, it really motivates them!” Research has documented extensively her sage observation.
Both Castillo and Ríos spoke of the importance of developing leadership in the parents who come to the center. Castillo has been leading capacity-building groups in which parents take on running school functions, such as a teacher appreciation party, and the upcoming Fall Festival. Ríos’ work is now funded by an Impact100 grant which supports her position, and another similar one at Sassarini School.
Children are also motivated and inspired when they see their parents taking classes. Evening classes offered include three biweekly classes of ESL, each with a full enrollment of thirty. These are taught by SRJC, brought to El Verano by La Luz. The JC also offers a class to prepare adults to take the GED (Graduate Equivalency Diploma) and 28 parents are participating in that. With funding from Impact100, the center now offers computer literacy classes Through International Institute of the Bay Area, volunteers from the community teach three citizenship classes, one in Spanish. Many other classes are taught by parents – yoga, Zumba, aerobics, ballet folklorico, gardening and nutrition, and math tutoring.
Mental health is another critical need met by services offered at the FRC. These include one-on-one counseling, support groups, and parenting classes. Partners in providing these services are NAMI, Richard Kirk MD, Verity and Sonoma County Behavioral Health.
“I am so grateful that we have been able to create space and opportunity for people of great capacity and passion,” said Iturri. “This is what education should be — about the entire family learning together.”