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Parent University Empowers New Americans — at School 

click to enlarge Ali Dieng, right, welcoming Khinaye Lwin, left, to Parent University - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Ali Dieng, right, welcoming Khinaye Lwin, left, to Parent University

One early November day, Ali Dieng pulled the van he was driving into the Burlington High School parking lot to drop off Khin Aye Lwin.* Though the school day was over for the high schoolers, it was just starting for Khin Aye Lwin. Carrying a floral pink-and-black knapsack, the pint-size 33-year-old, Burmese woman entered the school and followed pink posters that directed her to Parent University.

Research has shown that parental involvement is linked to higher student achievements. Accordingly, the Burlington School District, along with community organizers, established Parent University to equip parents with the skills and knowledge to become partners in their children's education and well-being. Though the program isn't designed solely for New American or multicultural parents, many of them seek out the classes, explained Dieng, the program manager. That's because they are new not only to the Burlington School District but to the culture.

Several local organizations help refugee parents resettle, find jobs and adapt to life in Vermont, but little support has been available to help them navigate the school system. Those who have little or no education themselves face an even more formidable task.

"I think it can be frustrating for New American parents that schools are expecting and wanting them to be there," said Miriam Ehtesham-Cating, the district's English Language Learning (ELL) director, "but they're not sure how to engage appropriately with schools — what's expected of them, what contributions they should make or what they might get out of it."

These issues motivated Dieng to start the 10-week Parent University program last spring. It caters to parents from the Burlington School District and is free for participants. Teacher volunteers include those from Spectrum Youth & Family Services, the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, Prevent Child Abuse Vermont and the University of Vermont Extension. The session costs about $9,000 to run; AARP Vermont and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a program of the Administration for Children & Families, are underwriting the current one.

Twenty-eight people signed up for Parent University's first session, and 12 graduated. The April-through-June class covered nutrition education, financial literacy, parenting skills and English language classes. For the current session, the U has several new partner organizations and teachers, which allowed for additional class sessions — they run Monday to Friday, 3:30 to 5 p.m. — and new topics including technology and substance abuse. Twenty-four people from Angolan, Burmese, Burundi, Guinean, Nepali, Senegalese and Somali Bantu communities signed up. Class sizes vary from six to 14, and, three weeks into the program, 17 parents have attended at least one class.

If it were up to Khin Aye Lwin, she would have liked to have more years of formal education. She grew up in refugee camps in northern Thailand and started going to school when she was 10. But she quit at age 17 when her parents died and she had to work and fend for herself. Life in the camp was difficult, and when Khin Aye Lwin was offered a chance to be resettled in the U.S. in 2008, she grabbed it. "I don't want to give my kids life in refugee camps," said the mother of four.

When Khin Aye Lwin's older children first started school in Burlington, they would come home crying. Not only did they struggle with the language, but they were not used to being away from their mother all day. Back in the refugee camp, they had attended school for shorter hours and eaten lunch at home.

Over time, though, Khin Aye Lwin's kids adapted to their new environment at the Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes in the Old North End, and they received ELL support. But when they transitioned to Edmunds Middle School, homework was once again a struggle. "My daughter and son said, 'Mum, we have homework. Can you help?'" recalled Khin Aye Lwin, who works as a housekeeper at the DoubleTree hotel.

When she saw how anxious her children were about their schoolwork, Khin Aye Lwin would stay up all night trying to help. She decided to approach the kids' teachers and explain their situation: "I asked, 'Can you take the time to show them?'" The teachers agreed, and her kids now have homework support twice a week.

These days, Khin Aye Lwin is worried that her now-teenage children might fall into bad company because both she and her husband work — a concern that all parents can relate to. When they lived in the refugee camp, the whole community looked out for everyone's kids. But here in their new home, "there is a lot of freedom," she said. She confessed to buying the latest Xbox so the kids would stay at home instead of socializing unsupervised with their friends.

Through the U, Khin Aye Lwin hopes to learn ways to provide teaching moments for her children — not by coercion but persuasion — and to explain "why we're not staying with you, why we need to go to work, why we need the money," she said.

Khin Aye Lwin, who speaks five languages, also wants to learn professional development skills so that she can get a better job. Though she's proficient enough in English to help interpret for Burmese and Karen students when needed, Lwin wants to improve her reading and writing skills. She also wants to acquire financial literacy skills so her family can buy a house. For now, though, she can't attend those specific classes because her work and public transportation schedules don't allow it.

Some parents, such as Judith Mukeshimana, are able to rush straight from work to class. The 34-year-old Burundian moved from a refugee camp in Tanzania to Vermont eight years ago. Today, she works as a cleaner at IBM in Essex Junction and is back for the U's second session. Last spring, Mukeshimana took nutrition and financial literacy. She smiled when she recalled how much her children enjoyed her homemade vegetarian pizzas and fruit popsicles.

For this session, the mother of three makes the 30-minute drive every Monday and Friday for the multi-topic and English education classes, respectively. She misses the first 45 minutes of every lesson, though, and is already fretting about how much more she'll miss in the winter because of traffic conditions.

During a Monday class led by Ehtesham-Cating, Mukeshimana especially wanted to know what to look for when reading her children's report cards. "So many, many things I don't know," she lamented. "I want to tell my friends to join the classes. If they don't come, they don't know."

Jim White, from the human services agency Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, taught at last spring's session and said he's now better prepared for the current one. "I was making a lot of assumptions about what people were interested in learning," he said. "I was making those assumptions based on many years of working with an English-speaking, disadvantaged community."

White hosted two Tibetans who immigrated to Vermont in the early 1990s and described his experience as "wonderful." He said he feels compassion for people arriving from somewhere else in the world and has resolved to make his latest class as useful as possible. "I don't feel that many generations removed from my own refugee roots," White noted. "My people escaped the famine in Ireland with nothing."

For this session, he has made his lessons "more visual, less verbal" to cater to his students, most of whom have little formal education and speak little English. This is important, White said, as he recalled two Karen students who dropped out of his last class when the interpreter got a full-time job elsewhere and stopped coming.

As the university's program manager, Dieng faces many challenges, including making sure that all stakeholders — instructors, interpreters and parents — remain committed. When it came to his attention that parents had trouble getting to the school, Dieng borrowed a van from the Association of Africans Living in Vermont. When one of the instructors fell ill, instead of canceling, Dieng gave an impromptu motivational class on parental involvement. He's already engaging with potential new teachers and hopes to introduce driving classes in the third session.

Dieng's main concern, though, is getting the word out to parents about the classes.

"When we talk about education, it's not just from kindergarten to high school; education is more than that," he said. Parents, he added, should "find out what their kids are good at and help them succeed."

Correction, November 11, 2015: An earlier version of this story set the time in late November. The story, in fact, takes place in early November.

Correction, January 12, 2016: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Khin Aye Lwin as "Lwin." In fact, Burmese names do not contain surnames.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Enrolling Mom and Dad"

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Kymelya Sari

Kymelya Sari

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Kymelya Sari is a Seven Days staff writer.

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