As a Mexican immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1982, Dinorah Olmos knows firsthand how difficult it is to navigate the American education system. When her daughter first started going to school, it took Olmos a while to understand how it all worked.
In 1986, Olmos started working as a bilingual assistant in schools in California. Since then, she has had numerous jobs in education, working with and for community colleges, universities, schools, school districts, and Latino communities around the U.S. For the past 14 years, she worked at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth as the Assistant Director of Academic Services for National and International Recruitment, focusing on recruiting international and local Latino students to join CTY.
Working with new immigrant parents over the years, Olmos realized how much help they needed understanding how the school system in the U.S. works. “Parents need more than translated documents or invitations to multicultural potlucks,” says Olmos, “they need to understand how to navigate the school system.” Not only is language an issue for many parents, says Olmos, but also understanding school grades, parents’ rights and responsibilities, school attendance, standardized tests, parent-teacher conferences, school choice, special education, and even what kids should wear to school – aspects of the school system that many of us take for granted. In addition, says Olmos, many parents come to the U.S. with only a 4th or 5th grade-level education and are asked to help their kids with schoolwork, which can be very difficult for them.
For first-generation Latino students to succeed, says Olmos, parent education and engagement is crucial. But a critical component was missing: programs focused on educating parents on the American school system. So Olmos started an educational program herself, in Spanish, for new immigrant parents: La Escuela, sus Hijos y Usted (School, your Children, and You). The program consists of a series of workshops designed to educate, empower, and inspire Spanish-speaking Latino parents in Baltimore to actively engage in the parent-school community, become advocates in their children’s educational process, and help their children achieve academic success.
Over the past two years, Olmos has implemented pilot programs in two community schools in Southeast Baltimore, Patterson Park Charter School and John Ruhrah Elementary School. With the OSI Community Fellowship, Olmos can expand the program to serve many more Latino parents in Southeast Baltimore, where most of Baltimore’s Latino immigrants live. While Baltimore’s overall population has decreased in the last ten years, the Latino population has grown and Spanish is the second most spoken language in Baltimore City Public Schools.
Olmos will offer five sessions of the six-week workshops for parents at schools in Southeast Baltimore, all conducted in Spanish. Each workshop will have ten participants and parents will be required to sign a contract and commit to attending all six classes in the series. Olmos’ goal is to reduce the sociocultural barriers that exist, build trust within parent-principal relationships, increase parents’ knowledge, and empower parents to be agents of change in their own lives, their children’s lives, and the larger school community. She hopes that in the long term this reduces the dropout rates among Latino students, increases their graduation rates, and fosters greater post-secondary school success. “I want to help new immigrant parents, so they are better prepared to help their children succeed,” says Olmos. “This has been a lifetime project.”