School Upon the Hill 

A new principal at Cleveland Elementary helps bridge language and cultural barriers to increase parental involvement.

Waiman Lam didn't use to attend many meetings at her children's school. Like most of the Chinese immigrant parents at Oakland's Cleveland Elementary, she felt excluded. She couldn't speak English. And she didn't think other people at the school really wanted to hear what she had to say.

"There was no communication," she said in Cantonese the other day, with a bilingual instructional assistant translating for her.

Lam, 40, has been a part of the school since her oldest son, now a high school senior, was a little boy. Most of that time, she stayed in the background, keeping her opinions to herself. But in the past two years, she's finally found her voice. She serves as president of the school's newly founded English Learner Advisory Committee, has attended protests at the school district offices, and routinely organizes other parent volunteers.

Staff at Cleveland Elementary — a cheerful orange and blue school perched atop a hill in Oakland's diverse China Hill neighborhood — say they've seen a dramatic increase in parental involvement in recent years. They, along with the parents, attribute that in large part to a new principal, Mia Settles, who has placed a premium on overcoming language and cultural barriers.

"Parents feel that if she's there, things will be fair for them," said Teresa Auyoung, a Cantonese-speaking first-grade teacher who's been at the school for 23 years. "And you can see it has nothing to do with skin colors."

The streets leading to the school reflect its diversity — beautiful single-family homes line one block, subsidized apartments another. Some 56 percent of Cleveland's 348 students are Asian, many of them from families that have immigrated recently from China and Vietnam. Another 23 percent are African American; most of the rest are white or Latino. Nearly two-thirds are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Settles, who is African American, came aboard as principal in August of 2006; she immediately set about reaching all of these groups. She started an open-door policy, telling parents they were welcome to drop by her office anytime. "I let them know my role is servant first, leader second," she said.

Asian parents told her they were frustrated. They wanted to help their children with homework, but struggled because they didn't speak the language. The school quickly arranged for adult English classes and started the English Learner Advisory Committee. They made it a point to have a translator at every school meeting.

African-American parents told Settles they felt schools often don't treat their children fairly. Settles started conversations with staff to make sure they were aware of that concern.

White parents in the neighborhood frequently sent their children to private schools. But after hearing Settles' philosophy, some decided to bring them back to Cleveland.

Evidence of increased parental involvement soon sprouted all over: It's in the new green and yellow play structure that parents raised more than $50,000 to pay for, after years of discussion. It's in the overflowing PTA meetings, which used to have no more than a dozen attendees — and now often reach fifty or sixty, plus a translator. And it's in the school's hallways, where, at any given time, several Cantonese-speaking parents can be found assembling workbooks, stapling papers, or doing any number of other chores. When staff or parents can't communicate with one another because of language barriers, they make it a point to smile and put a hand over their hearts.

At the beginning of this academic year, something drew Cleveland's parents even closer together: overcrowding. In the first weeks of school, some of the older grades had as many as 34 children. The school was forced to combine fourth- and fifth-grade classes to accommodate them. Some teachers, including fifth-grade teacher Ted Sugarman, found they didn't have enough desks for all their students. "It was unsatisfactory to everybody," Sugarman said. "Especially the parents."

Parents were outraged. The school has a successful academic track record. In the past couple years, its Academic Performance Index score has gone up from an acceptable 822 to an even better 862. (The statewide target is 800). Many parents thought that success was suddenly in jeopardy.

The parents met with district officials several times. Eventually, nearly 100 of them — black, white, Asian, and Latino — showed up to picket outside the district offices. Although they didn't end up with the precise outcome they wanted, they did get an additional teacher during the process. But beyond that, said Staples: "We've come together."

"It's been beautiful actually, even though we have a little language barrier sometimes," she said. "... We look at each other in our eyes and hearts and we get it across: It's for all of our children to do the right thing."

Troy Flint, a spokesman for Oakland Unified, called the increase in parental involvement at Cleveland "very beneficial." The protests earlier this year were a reflection of something deeply positive that's happened at the school, he said. "While we don't want to see parents unhappy, there is a silver lining that's happened in that now they feel empowered to present their opinions to district administration in a way they wouldn't have before."

Settles points to other examples of parents coming together at her school. Earlier this year, the father of a second grader was hit by a car and killed. In three weeks, parents at the school had raised $3,500 and signed up to bring his family meals every day for at least a month, she said.

Many staff members said they've been impressed by the involvement of so many parents who stayed silent in the past. Auyoung, the first-grade teacher, said Chinese parents at the school used to feel like second-class citizens. Now "they understand and they can feel that they are not lower than anybody," she said.

One Wednesday afternoon last month, about sixteen parents gathered in Auyoung's classroom for a meeting of the English Learner Advisory Committee. Most were Chinese, although Staples and her friend Lynne Wardell, who is white, were in attendance representing the school site council. Jamie Flaherty Evans — also white — was there on behalf of the PTA. A few small children climbed in and out of their mothers' laps.

"How's everybody doing? Doing okay?" Settles asked, kicking off the meeting. She waited as Auyoung translated. The discussion was fairly standard — topics ranged from volunteer shifts, to PTA dues, to donations to help teachers buy supplies. Toward the end, some of the Chinese mothers brought up the idea of starting a children's ping-pong team after school.

"Does anyone know how to coach ping-pong?" Settles asked. Several mothers pointed out one short-haired woman, who they said had been well-regarded as a coach in China. She promptly blushed and hid her face behind a sheet of paper. They burst into applause.

As transformative moments go, this was a small one. But after the meeting, Waiman Lam was beaming. Judith Choy, the instructional assistant, translated.

"They feel more part of the school," Choy explained, after Lam finished speaking. "She wants the teachers and parents and students as one big, happy family."

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