When her daughter first enrolled in the bilingual pre-kindergarten program at Mayes Elementary School in Denison, Edith Vasquez had only been in the U.S. for a short time. Not knowing how to speak English, Vazquez would drop her daughter off in the cafeteria and leave quietly. Since enrolling in the Mayes Latino Literacy Project, Vasquez is no longer afraid to greet teachers in the cafeteria with a "good morning" in English.

When her daughter first enrolled in the bilingual pre-kindergarten program at Mayes Elementary School in Denison, Edith Vasquez had only been in the U.S. for a short time. Not knowing how to speak English, Vazquez would drop her daughter off in the cafeteria and leave quietly. Since enrolling in the Mayes Latino Literacy Project, Vasquez is no longer afraid to greet teachers in the cafeteria with a "good morning" in English.


The Latino Literacy Project teaches parents the importance of establishing a family reading routine with their children, how to share a book and helps both parents and their children learn English vocabulary and grammar. It also teaches parents the skills they need to be involved with their children’s education. At the elementary school level, the family reading program is called "Cuentos Familiares" which means "Family Stories" in English.


In September, the White House recognized The Latino Family Literacy Project because the program invests in key education priorities for Hispanics. According to a White House report, implementing the same program at schools such as Mayes Elementary School will help close the achievement gap by increasing educational opportunities, improve educational outcomes and deliver a complete and competitive education for all Hispanics.


"The Latino culture is very strong in family values and oral stories but unfortunately, families do not have the habit of reading at home. It’s not because parents don’t want to; it’s just not something they do like parents in the United States," Clelia Peña, Mayes Elementary School bilingual instructor, said. "We want to look at the culture as not something that is lacking, but something that is so rich that we can add onto it."


For the last 10 weeks, families have met every Thursday night for an hour and a half. After reading a story in Spanish, parents brought the book home to read with their children in both languages. Prior to the program, Peña said all 15 families did not have a regular reading time with their children and now families report reading multiple times a week with their children.


"Each book has a different story but they are all stories that relate to the Latino culture in the United States," Peña said. "Because their kids are bi-cultural and bilingual, it’s important that they are learning how to incorporate both cultures into their family life by reading the stories and learning vocabulary."


Just like their children, the parents were responsible for homework to help them learn English. Each week they had to submit their homework and the teachers would grade their assignments for proper vocabulary and grammar. On top of the homework, the parents also had to create a family photo album so they would have a keepsake from the experience.


One of the books used features two sisters who are very different and they would fight sometimes. After reading the story, Peña said the class discussed how each child in a family is different. With some families having two kids and others having six kids, she said they learned that every child has different qualities.


For their homework assignment, the parents glued a picture of each child in the photo album and described each child with different adjectives in Spanish. With the help of their children, the parents then had to translate the adjectives to English. They were also encouraged to discuss how they would describe their personalities in Spanish and English.


Parent feedback


"It’s important that we learn how to say the words and what they mean," Cindy Aguilar, a mother of two daughters, said. "It’s been fun to me because I know the language, but I know it has been a little challenging for my friends. Despite that, I know they all have really enjoyed it and they have learned a lot."


With a son in fifth grade and a 3-year-old daughter, Maria Rangel said her family has found time to read together a couple times a week since joining the program. Because her children have enjoyed reading with her, she said they started reading books her son checks out from the school library on top of the bilingual books that she brings home each week.


"When they told me about this class, I thought it may be interesting and I could learn something to show my son and daughter," Rangel said. "It’s hard because I have a job and I have to take my children places, but I feel it’s very important to come because it will may help my children later."


With the help of campus interpreter Alma Bonham, Vazquez said she joined the program because she wanted to learn how to communicate better with her child. Because the books shared stories about Latino culture, she said she thought the books were interesting and it was easy to relate them as a parent from outside the U.S.


"It’s a great thing because it gets us moms together and we get to learn how to read to our kids at home," Aguilar said. "I’ve learned that you can ask so many questions after reading a story. It doesn’t have to necessarily be about the important things in the book but you can also make up questions to help your kids learn."


Although Aguilar started becoming a bilingual speaker when she was 8 years old, she said she has enjoyed the homework because it has given her the opportunity to work with her children. It’s exciting for her children because they feel like they’re helping her instead of her helping them, she said.


"If you learn more English, it will help make you better," Bonham translated for Vazquez. "I hope other families don’t stay home because it will only keep you in the same place … Because of this class, I want to practice English everyday."


Impact on students


Mayes Elementary School is the only campus with a bilingual pre-kindergarten program in the Denison Independent School District. The program currently has 137 students that practice both Spanish and English depending on the day of the week and subject. Students practice Spanish on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays, while Tuesdays and Thursdays are designated English-speaking days. Reading and writing is taught in Spanish and math is taught in English.


"I’m excited that it’s teaching our bilingual parents skills to help their children at home because a lot of times we’ll send work home and parents don’t know what to do," Natalie Hicks, Mayes Elementary School principal, said. "School work has changed since the parents have been in school and some of our bilingual parents are coming from Mexico, so our schooling is different from what they had or if they did not have any at all."


The campus plans to have more literacy classes during the next school year. Administrators are going to encourage pre-kindergarten parents to join the program so they can develop their skills before their children are enrolled in kindergarten to help their children learn, Hicks said.


"We just try to incorporate as much Spanish on the whole campus on those days as possible because it helps our English learners as much as our Spanish learners," Hicks said. "Not only does it help our English speakers to be more accepting of other cultures, it has also helped our bilingual speakers feel important because they can see the benefit of knowing two languages.


"By the time they exit the program, you should be able to lay any piece of paper down in front of them and they should know what it means in English as well as what it means in Spanish. That’s the ultimate goal."