With summer whipping up, Christina Pham decided polynomials could wait. But that would mean standing up to her mother, Tuyet Mai Nguyen, who was pushing her daughter to enroll in an intensive math training prep course.
Christina knew her decision would not be warmly received.
At a time of profound cuts to California’s education budget, administrators at Garden Grove Unified School District (GGUSD) have maintained steadfast support behind the district’s Outreach Office, a department of bilingual district employees that serve to link immigrant parents to schools, the district and community agencies.
The idea behind the office is that informed parents can make a difference in the lives of their children.
A year ago, the conversation between mother and daughter might have ended differently. The math class at California State Fullerton was free. Thinking about Christina’s future, an endless preoccupation, Nguyen was firmly convinced Christina should attend.
On her way to straight As, Christina was ready for a break. And while her mother was upset with the decision, she listened anyway, consenting in the end to her daughter’s pitch about attending a career training, UC-approved class in graphic design.
“We explained our positions to each other,” said Nguyen about the active listening approach she learned from the Outreach Class. “She explained her way and how (she) thinks, and I explained my way.”
Nguyen is one of a growing number of parents who are using the Outreach Office, now going into its sixth year, to form stronger bonds with their children – though it doesn’t always come naturally.
The Outreach Office provides lessons on California public education standards and procedures and classes on ways parents can support their children through school.
“In general, parents want the students to do well, but I don’t think the parents know what the children need to do well in,” Rancho Alamitos counselor Victor Bui said.
With 48,000 students, more than half of them coming from immigrant households, district officials know they are dealing with parents who didn’t go through traditional American schooling, said GGUSD Public Information Officer Alan Trudell. Some 13,000, or 27 percent, of the district’s students in the 2009-2010 school year were Vietnamese. Of that total, 270 students were born in Vietnam.
Dr. Mark Nguyen, assistant principal at La Quinta, says the outreach office is particularly important, given that there are only three Vietnamese-speaking administrators in the district. Unless they speak Vietnamese, says Nguyen, it’s difficult for administrators to assess how much the parent actually understands.
GGUSD also pays for a radio slot every other Wednesday to educate Vietnamese parents. Linh Bui, co-host of the show and the first Vietnamese outreach counselor, says that as an immigrant herself, she can relate to parents’ confusion.
After each airing of the 45-minute Vietnamese-language program, Bui says she is bombarded by questions from anxious parents on a range of topics, from CAHSEE (California‘s required high school exit exams) to graduation, autism, attention deficit disorder and discipline.
On the radio show, she’ll calm the nerves of anxiety-ridden parents who are waiting for their child’s college acceptance letter. Another parent will ask what a pill of the drug Ecstasy looks like; she fears her son might be using it, and she asks if going to the police would end up in her child’s arrest.
“When I work with these parents, they say it’s overwhelming dealing with an issue like truancy,” Linh Bui said. “Or risky behavior. Or their 15-year-old child not wanting to attend school.”
For many of these parents, who carry memories of war and poverty, concepts like child empowerment, and encouraging skills and interests outside of school can seem foreign at best, or at worst dangerously corrosive. But such ideas are just what the Outreach Office-run 40 Developmental Assets workshop series promotes.
“The parents don’t get the communication,” says counselor Tami Tran. “For them, if children say something back then that means they are being disobedient.”
Diep Phan is the mother of a 12-year-old. As the daughter of a former military officer who spent 12 years in one of Vietnam’s many re-education camps, Phan recalls her own school experience. “It looked more like a jail than a school.” Parent involvement came once a year when the teacher handed the parent a report card. “Here is a report card. Look at it,” is how Phan describes the annual encounters.
Now a full-time parent, Phan says she attends all the workshops hosted by the Outreach Office, adding that she is growing more comfortable in her role as a parent. She laughs when she describes a lesson from the 40 Developmental Assets class: How to say “No.”
For Christina Phan, the 40 Developmental Assets workshop opened her mother’s eyes to what her daughter needs to graduate and go on to a good college. Phan says her mother now takes a proactive approach when offering help, and often needs explaining when it comes to school procedures.
“Like AP, I think she knows what it is now,” Christina said. “Before it was very tiring to explain why I can’t take AP classes because I am a freshman.”
For Nguyen, the classes are a first step. While she’s gained a better understanding of what her daughter needs, she’s still working on allowing more room for Christina to pursue her own passions.
After spending a summer playing tennis, Christina hopes to try out for the team.
John Sakata is a freelance reporter in Orange County. He received a 2011 NAM Education Beat Fellowship for ethnic media journalists on the topic of "What's Working For Kids in Your Community?---Innovations in Underserved Communities.” The fellowship was sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
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