When Maria Torres first sent her child to Kate Bond Elementary School, the thought of reinforcing classroom lessons at home or volunteering at the school was overwhelming because she did not speak English.

“We never knew what was going on,” she said.

Lissette Bailey, center, is the bilingual mentor for Kate Bond Elementary School in Memphis.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

The school’s longtime bilingual mentor, Lissette Bailey, knew Torres’s story was common. Even though Bailey could help with translating materials Torres could use, she wanted to empower other parents like her to stay involved in their children’s education. So she started the class to teach parents English nearly a decade ago.

That decision has led to cascading effects for the school, where half of students are Hispanic and the immigrant population is growing. Parents say they can help their children with homework now and have gotten involved with the school’s parent-teacher organization.

“The ones that participate the most, their kids are doing well,” Bailey said. “They’re understanding more now because their parents are understanding more.”

Kate Bond Elementary offers a model for Shelby County Schools, where a growing immigrant population is compounding longtime challenges with parent involvement. The district has ramped up efforts to reach Hispanic families, many of whom are first-generation immigrants, including by opening a program to acclimate newly arrived high school students.

Source: Tennessee Department of Education

But Bailey, who is in her 18th year at Kate Bond Elementary, said more bilingual mentors are needed for schools, especially those with high English learner populations. Though many immigrant students speak Spanish, the district also has students whose first language is neither Spanish nor English.

Kate Bond Principal Yvette Williams-Renfroe said the class makes a difference at her school and could be a solution for other schools.

“It makes them feel like they’re a part of the community,” she said.

Volunteer teacher Alicia Hall leads an English class for parents at Kate Bond Elementary School.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

A typical morning class is split into two sections: a beginner section led by a volunteer and a more advanced group led by Reyna Collier, who two years ago was in the same situation as those she teaches.

The class also has become a social gathering for mothers. They bring their children who are too young for school and recently threw a baby shower for one regular.

“I never knew anybody before … and I have friends now,” Collier said.

As their English skills grow, many of the parents have approached PTO president Mary Smith about how to get involved.

“That’s how I got into the PTO was through the class. We’ve learned things we never knew about programs at the school,” said Bertha Garcia.

“If we’re connected, I believe we can almost do anything,” Smith said.

There are several other parent ESL classes in Memphis, but Bailey’s is one of the longest-running. As part of her role, Bailey also mediates complaints, misunderstandings, and meetings between teachers and parents learning English. The ESL class has been the most useful tool in increasing parent engagement, she said.

“You have to put yourself in their shoes sometimes,” said Bailey. “I do it because I see a need.”