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New parent group forms to boost family engagement at Kenmore Middle School

Recently, a thriving, 200-plus Whatsapp group for Kenmore Middle School’s Spanish-speaking parents received unexpected membership requests.

They came from Ethiopian and Mongolian parents, who told the group’s moderator, Janeth Valenzuela, they could find ways to overcome the language barrier.

Valenzuela — who has spent years organizing the Hispanic parents so they can navigate and volunteer in Arlington Public Schools — let them in.

“One thing I’ve noticed in all these years in advocacy is that if we only focus on Hispanic parents, we miss out on the parents who are in need, but they don’t have leaders who represent them because their community is smaller,” she said. “Parents need to belong to the school community.”

So she and another parent, Marianne Talbot, decided to expand the parent group and rename it Kenmore Community Families in Action. The group, which launched this fall, provides low-budget family and community events, a family support group, an after-school student club, a speaker series and regular Zoom conversations with Principal David McBride.

“Education goes hand-in-hand between the schools, the parents and the community,” Valenzuela said. “If the three don’t work together well, we don’t accomplish anything.”

Recently, the group invited a representative from a tutoring service APS uses to help a few dozen students set up tutoring accounts on their iPads. But it also does fun things, like hand out certificates to students after they completed a mile run for P.E. class.

“We wanted to show the students who don’t have it easy… that we may not understand and we can’t walk a mile in their shoes but we appreciate them doing it,” Talbot said.

Talbot says the group is a non-competitive alternative to the local Parent-Teacher Association. She resigned as president of the Kenmore PTA after not seeing eye-to-eye with other parents on how it should be run. The PTA did not return a request for comment.

The co-founders said Kenmore Community Families in Action meets the needs of caregivers who don’t typically attend PTA meetings, aren’t used to their structure or don’t feel welcome there.

One reason for low attendance rates among immigrants is lack of representation, says Elder Julio Basurto, who provides Spanish-language interpretation at PTA meetings.

“I have seen as an interpreter that we are underrepresented throughout the county… I went to Drew School, which is almost 50% Latino, and in the last meeting there wasn’t one parent for me to interpret for. That tells you a lot.”

The rebirth of the group comes amid a broader conversation about whether PTAs are representative. School Board-elect Bethany Sutton recently said PTAs and their influence in advisory groups create an “echo chamber.”

“I don’t think PTAs are representative of parents, generally speaking,” Sutton said in an Arlington Parents for Education candidate forum ahead of the election on Nov. 8. “It’s a small microcosm of people who have availability, energy and commitment to do certain things at certain times of the day, week or year.”

APE says PTAs serve an important role, but parents should join advisory groups to advocate effectively for policies. The group formed to pressure APS to return to in-person schooling during the pandemic and now focuses on learning loss and the budget.

“We strongly support efforts to include a diverse swath of parental voices in all opportunities for input from the community,” the group said.

But the Arlington County Council of PTAs told ARLnow in a statement that local parent groups have been and continue to work to change this narrative, diversify leadership, engage families outside of meetings and fund culturally relevant activities.

The CCPTA says it advises PTAs to recruit leaders who reflect the the student body and stagger their meetings so working parents of children in different schools don’t have multiple meetings in one night. Since the pandemic, it has provided Zoom accounts with live language interpretation capabilities.

The countywide organization says it is going beyond meetings to reach families.

PTAs consult with school social workers who address homelessness and APS staff who communicate with families in Spanish, Amharic, Mongol, Arabic and other languages. They also talk with neighborhood associations and special education coordinators, and participate in WhatsApp groups.

“Arlington’s PTAs are constantly re-calibrating to figure out what works best for their communities,” the CCPTA statement says. “The result is that for many parents, engagement with the PTA takes place outside of attendance at formal meetings to vote on PTA business.”

Local PTAs and the CCPTA are also responding to requests from underrepresented communities to fund grants for opportunities such as trips to the Smithsonian museums for students learning English. It provides local chapters with best practices on outreach and involvement.

As for Kenmore, Principal McBride says the school welcomes parent engagement “in any form.”

“Although it is too early to tell what type of impact the new parent group will have, we are happy to work with both the PTA and Kenmore Families in Action,” he said.

Talbot says she thinks this model could be replicated. The Whatsapp group model already exists at Washington-Liberty and Wakefield high schools.

“We know how it works, and we know what families and students have told us they want,” Talbot said. “We just have to watch it grow.”

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